Does freedom of expression give us a right to show videos of animals being crushed?

In 2010 president Barack Obama signed a law banning videos that depict animal cruelty. Judith Bruhn explores whether this is a justified restriction to freedom of expression.

In 2010 president Barack Obama signed a law to ban so-called “crush videos” depicting people torturing small animals to death. These videos mostly act as sexual fetishes, portraying women in high heels stomping helpless animals like rabbits or kittens until they die. The Animal Crush Video Prohibition Act therefore criminalised the creation, sale and marketing of this specific kind of video. Sen. Jeff Merkley, one of the co-sponsors of the bill, argued that by cracking down on the creation and distribution of such videos, both animal rights and free speech would be protected. However, in 1999 a broader federal law designed to stop the sale and marketing of dogfight videos and other animal cruelty was struck down by Supreme Court justices on the grounds that it was an unconstitutional violation of free speech. Robert Stevens, the man behind the dogfighting videos, was originally backed by several media organisations worried that such a law would include reports on deer hunting and depictions of bullfighting. Robert Stevens defended his dogfighting videos as educational.

Passage of the 2010 Act raises the very interesting question of whether animals as well as humans should be covered by laws restricting freedom of speech. I absolutely believe they should be. Animals experience great pain during the production of such videos and freedom of expression does not justify cruelty, whether it is to humans or animals. Documentaries which report the conditions in which animals are harmed should not be banned as they are educative in nature and can lead to the protection of animals in the future. Organisations like Human Society of the United States (which originally lobbied for the 2010 legislation) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, use such documentaries to raise awareness and campaign for laws against animal cruelty.

Since animals are unable to speak, it is all the more important to protect them through law. Is the law a restriction on freedom of expression? Yes. Is it justified? Absolutely. Freedom of expression is not a justification for animal cruelty.

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Comments (8)

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  1. Surely all freedom of expression must be limited to that which does not do disproportional harm to others; be they, animals humans or whatever. Perhaps anyone who has read much philosophy will recall the merits of categorical reasoning. I believe that freedom of expression along with many other things in live generically; cannot be absolute, but balanced against other considerations. Reading though what I have written brings to mind religion; I have always believed that doing what one believes to be ethical is a religious act in its self. I’m not really sure if that statement is relevant or correct.

  2. It is highly controversial issue whether this ban for crush video is a justified restricition to freedom expression or not. I think that behind this ban, the subject is protection from the ugly and violence scenes which could be negative impact on our children and people as well. Authorities would thought over negative influence of such videos such as encouraging to violence on animals like the negative impact of pornography. When someone watch pornography, he or she doesn’t care about the suffering victims in the movie, only think in the people’s mind is related to addiction and encouraging to doing sexual violence. I think these two subjects are similar and they tantamount to each other. If we find this ban is restricition to freedom of expression we also willing to accept any sexual violence video should be showed in the name of expression of freedom. How many persons would do something for protection animals when they see any torture video? How many persons do something over eliminating or preventing pornography when they see?
    To put in a nutshell, it is much better to ban any video which include violence rather to watch in order to protection to freedom of expression.

    • Hi deepblue – thank you for the comment. I agree with you as in this case the video is produced for entertainment and pleasure and people or animals are actually harmed rather than it being simulated. These videos are a form of pornography.

      I am not sure pornography per se should be banned, but certainly that which shows actual violence done.

      What do you and anyone else think about banning pornography? What are good reasons for doing so? Public morality? Protection of women/men/children/animals?

  3. It seems that we have both told out and loud all arguments and I’ll refrain from repeating myself. I already expressed my openness to carve out exception from free speech for banning animal crush videos. Furthermore, we strongly agree that child pornography should be banned from the Internet. Though I see important difference with animal crush videos, so I cannot subscribe to the analogy you made in your last very interesting comment. Child pornography is by definition an illegitimate coercion of human beings (I hasten to add vulnerable humans because ex hypothesis they’re incapable of consent). I cannot see anything worse than that. While I find animal torture repulsive and base, that is not the same horror as torturing humans (that is what child pornography amounts to). Please do not misunderstand me, I am not denying the horrors of the former. But two horrors, or repulsive act still can differ categorically. While I would take the risk of accidental censorship to fight against c.pornography in the form of videos in the net; I might be more hesitant for the other one (still not denying that the base human activity of animal torture should be outlawed). By the way in my eyes the US courts said just that in U.S. v Stevens.

  4. You make some good points. But to be honest, for me it is not about the viewer or the producer. It is about the third party that suffers for the entertainment of others. Child pornography should be banned – no matter whether the illegality of it decreases the production of the material or not – because it causes harm to a vulnerable party.
    There may be or may not be a significant relation between the commercial sale and production of those videos (which I believe there probably is). Regardless of that though, it should not be legal to make a video showing how a helpless animal is tortured and killed (an action which you yourself concede should be illegal). I do not think we can make the ban of this dependent on whether it will actually decrease the production, and if not, leave it. The ban is in place not in the first place to reduce the production of those videos but to protect the victims in them by making it illegal and thus prosecutable to produce them.
    As you have said yourself, these videos hold no value in terms of seeking the truth or self-expression. What justification is there for them to be produced then? Is the protection of animals from cruelty not more important than the freedom to do produce a video with doubtful value depicting an activity that is illegal anyway? – Let me take child pornography again: does the protection of children (even if this is only a potential protection from and reduction in abuse) not take priority over the freedom of producers and viewers to make, distribute and watch such material?

  5. It is an interesting debate indeed. And I acknowledge that it is not an easy question (as opposed to the video game case you referred to earlier where I rather see a counterproductive zealous moralism on those arguing for the the ban). There seems to be two points of view to take into account at the issue of crush videos: the viewer’s and the producer’s. For the former it does not make any difference whether the video is simulated or real. So concerning the impact of the ban on the viewers there is no gain by any ban of real videos (provided we do not engage in banning fake, simulated videos – that I presume we agree we should not). On the other hand the ban on crush videos might have an impact on these video producers: they may become even more discouraged to pursue illegal activities, ie torturing animals because they cannot put their trash online (note: we have already agreed that torturing animal should be outlawed). I am deliberately hesitant on this point. The existence of such a link is not immediately evident for me. Should we have less killing on TV, would we end up being a less violent society? I do not think so. And for once, the medium is important: no one can accidentally watch videos on the web unlike to linear media services. But I absolutely concede that crush videos neither contribute to the search for truth nor represent any form of valid self-disclosure (Baker). But the ball is in the camp of regulators to justify the restriction not the speaker to justify its on-line communication. While I admit that I have no evidence about the hypothetical evidence on the ban’s impact on the activity (ie animal torture) and hence empirical evidence might tick the balance on this particular issue in favour of ban, I still think that a lots of disgusting, morally repugnant stuff is going on on the web and that overall, well, it is for the better. Placing too much hope in the effect of banning content from the web seems to me not just futile but dangerous indeed. We should keep exceptions to free speech under control and not free speech.

  6. Hi Tamas, and thank you for this excellent comment. You raise very good points.

    To be honest, to me it does make a difference whether a violent act is simulated or acted or whether it is real. These videos in my opinion should be banned because they make profit out of these horrific acts, which should be forbidden anyway.

    Should violence in general be banned? I don’t think so. In fact, in a different Case Study of mine I argue that a video game depicting the rape of women and young girls should not be banned: The difference is: these animals actually experience pain and die, the animated characters don’t.

    This does not mean that all videos showing cruelty or suffering should be banned. I am absolutely in favour of allowing videos raising awareness of ills and horrific situation. But I cannot support or defend the active construction of such situation in order to film them. This is not freedom of expression to me. Actually harming creatures (whether human or animal) is not just another way to express yourself.

    Do let me know what you think about this. I am very interested and this issue is very close to my heart.

  7. Civilized people do not like cruelty inflicted on animals. Nor on humans. But this still seems to be scarce foundation for restricting freedom to show violent movies. Torturing animals should not be within one’s liberty – as it is not in the US for instance. Nor is mass murdering. But people still watch happily bloodsheds in TV every day. You can say the latter is mere simulation, while the other may not be. But is it really what matters? It does not seem to me. Chopping off (any) speech from the Internet is dubious and dangerous exercise. Dubious because the causal link between depicting these horrific scenes and the prevalence of torturing animals should still be demonstrated – and it may not even be enough ground for restricting free speech. After all, efficiency in combating violence is necessary but not sufficient ground for restriction – because there is more than mere efficiency that we value. Even if there is a causal link here, we will still allow James Bond to teach us violence, right? (I know, I know for vanquishing the bad guys, that is noble..) Or what about pornography? Some say it systematically undermines women’s position in society by depicting them as subordinate humans. Should we ban that too? At the end of the day, it may not be a bad idea to ban animal crush videos. But would we be comfortable with the principle that all depiction of socially harmful activities be outlawed from the Internet. That seems to fall far from the core idea of freedom.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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