Missing the Mark on Anti-Cruelty Law
This fall, for the first time in more than 15 years, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a major animal protection case. The high court will decide whether to uphold a 1999 federal law that bans the commercial sale of videos depicting extreme and illegal acts of animal cruelty, such as dogfighting and other deliberate and malicious acts.
The legislation at issue was introduced by Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.) and targeted a shockingly widespread, underground subculture of “animal crush” videos, where scantily clad women, often in high-heeled shoes, impale and crush to death puppies, kittens and other small animals, catering to those with a sexual fetish for this aberrant behavior. In the last decade, this federal law has helped to dry up the sickening “crush video” industry, and has also been used to prosecute people who profit from the sale of contraband dogfighting films.
Some reforms are so evident that there really is not a debate in society about the right course of action. No one could possibly think that trafficking in videos of women crushing small animals to death for sexual pleasure, or of people forcing two dogs to tear each other apart for entertainment and gambling, is a protected form of free speech.
But some groups—like the National Rifle Association, Safari Club International, and the Outdoor Writers Association of America—have joined ranks with dogfighters, pornographers, and others in their efforts to overturn the law, and legalize the peddling of animal torture videos for profit. Apparently, they have been misled into thinking that their own hunting activities might somehow be banned under the statute, and are lining up with the worst of the worst to strip Congress of its rightful authority to ban the interstate trafficking in commercial depictions of animal cruelty. Even today in his regular column in The Hill, David Keene, the founder of the American Conservative Union and a now defunct hunting rights organization, repeats the canards of the NRA and Safari Club.
The truth is there is nothing in the Depictions of Animal Cruelty Act that could possibly affect lawful sport hunting. Indeed the statute only criminalizes depictions of animal cruelty that are illegal, and it doesn’t cover lawful practices such as hunting. The law specifically exempts any material that has political, social, or artistic value—say, an outdoor column or hunting website—and only affects videos that are sold in interstate commerce for commercial gain. This is essentially the same test for stopping the production and sale of certain forms of human obscenity. No one is going to try to take away someone’s snapshots or home movies of their latest hunting excursion.
The decision by a few extremist hunting groups to stand side-by-side with dogfighters and animal crush aficionados puts them at odds with the 26 state Attorneys General who have asked the high court to uphold this law because it’s vital to protect animals and the larger community from violence, drug trafficking, and other crimes that flow from the morally deadened hearts of people who perpetrate malicious cruelty. Would the nation’s top law enforcement officials—many of them from big hunting states—come out in favor of this law if it actually somehow impacted lawful hunting?
The desultory tactics of people who peddle fetish films of extreme animal cruelty have apparently led the hunting groups to stray down the trail of opposing this law. Most hunters, like most other Americans, have zero tolerance for malicious acts of animal cruelty. This federal law is no more ambiguous than state anti-cruelty statutes, many of which do not specifically exempt hunting, but which are never used against lawful hunting practices. It’s a common-sense standard.
As the Attorneys General’s brief makes clear, there are strong arguments that commercial depictions of animal cruelty, like child pornography, should not be entitled to any First Amendment protection at all. The makers and sellers of these videos are not expressing a viewpoint—they are simply profiting from extreme cruelty. We wouldn’t allow people to sell videos of people actually abusing children or raping women, and the same legal principles are at hand with malicious acts of cruelty, which are illegal in every state and a felony in nearly all.
The NRA and Safari Club leadership have repeatedly demonstrated they are out of step with rank-and-file sportsmen and the American public, by defending inhumane and repugnant practices such as “canned hunts” of captive exotic animals, the trade in bear parts for their gall bladders, the trophy shooting of threatened polar bears in the Arctic, and even poaching and puppy mills. Their intervention in this case is not only based on a gross misreading of this important federal anti-cruelty law, but also shows that their refrain about representing traditional values is cheap and false rhetoric and nothing more.