October 7, 2009

U.S. Supreme Court Discusses Animal Cruelty Video Case

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments over a law that makes it a crime to sell or possess any depiction of animal cruelty--one that could negatively affect documentary filmmakers.

While the Depiction of Animal Cruelty Law was specifically aimed at stopping a certain type of sexual fetish videos which involve crushing small animals to death, it has been used against filmmaker Robert Stevens, who produces dogfighting videos.

Stevens became the first person ever prosecuted under a 1999 statute for selling videos such as Japan Pit Fights, Pick a Winna and Catch Dogs and Country Living. He was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. He didn't stage the fights or even film them. He pieced together films made by others, mainly in Japan, where dogfighting is legal.

A federal appeals court threw out the conviction and struck down the law. The appeals court said it was written so broadly that it could apply to too many other instances that aren't cruel by law, including pictures in hunting magazines, scene in classic Hollywood movies, even documentaries such as The Cove and Food, Inc., that may use certain imagery to illustrate a point.

The IDA filed an Amicus brief, telling the high court why the case being heard is important to the membership of IDA and urging the court to rule in favor of the filmmaker. Attending the hearing for IDA was former President, Michael C. Donaldson.

National Public Radio ran a great wrap-up of the arguments by the judges.

From NPR:

Seeking to revive the animal cruelty law, the government appealed to the Supreme Court. The Obama administration contended that depictions of animal cruelty are not covered by the First Amendment guarantee of free speech, just as child pornography is not covered. Defending the statute today, Deputy Solicitor General Neal Katyal argued that Congress wrote its ban narrowly by creating exemptions from prosecution for depictions that have a serious educational, scientific, or artistic purpose. Chief Justice John Roberts bore in on those exemptions as evidence that prosecutions would depend on the views of the speaker.

As we await the judgment, audio and text transcript of piece detailing the arguments can be found here.