Dogs, Videos and Violence

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Monday, October 5, 2009

DEPENDING ON whom you ask, Robert J. Stevens is either an avowed canine enthusiast and educational filmmaker or a man who traffics in the misery and violence of dogfights.

Mr. Stevens produces videos that he says are meant to instruct owners on how to train pit bulls to ward off predators, such as coyotes, and assist in legal hunting activities. Some of the videos also focus on the history of the pit bull breed and include footage of dogfights.

In 2004, Mr. Stevens ran afoul of a federal law that prohibits the sale or possession for "commercial gain" of material that depicts living animals being "intentionally maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded, or killed." The statute was passed in the last year of the Clinton administration and was meant to target "crush videos," in which women in high heels crush small animals to death for the sexual titillation of viewers. But in the 10 years of its existence, the law has been applied only three times and only against those with some nexus to dog fighting.

Mr. Stevens was convicted, despite a provision in the law that exempts from prosecution material that has "serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical, or artistic value." The conviction rocked media groups and hunting organizations -- and with good reason.

Although the law has been used sparingly, it leaves in the hands of the government the power to criminalize speech that is either unpopular or offensive. It is written so broadly that it could be used to chill or even ensnare legitimate newsgathering exercises or put in legal jeopardy those who capture hunting expeditions on tape.

The exemption, which is meant to legally cure these problems, is clearly not effective. During Mr. Stevens's trial, for example, the jury was instructed that only work that was "significant and of great import" could be considered "serious" and thus eligible for the exemption.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the Stevens case Tuesday. The court has long resisted allowing the government more say on what constitutes appropriate speech. It has made rare exceptions only if the law in question is narrowly tailored and aimed at achieving a compelling government interest, such as protecting children from sexual exploitation by banning the sale or possession of child pornography. The law in the Stevens case meets neither of these two standards and should be struck down.

Some 46 states have felony laws on the books prohibiting malicious acts of animal cruelty; dog fighting is a felony in all 50 states. These laws should be actively enforced, thereby bringing abusers to justice without risking the erosion of free-speech rights.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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