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.