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The Supremes' film review: 8-1, animal cruelty films are free speech (Justice Alito gives them a thumbs-down)

April 20, 2010 |  5:23 pm
AlitoThe fruit of a crime is a crime. The guy having a smoke in the getaway car is just as guilty of murder as the bank robber who pulled the trigger.

So why is the Supreme Court now giving a legal pass to the criminal torture and murder of animals – not in person but on video?

Only one justice, Samuel A. Alito Jr., whose springer spaniel Zeus sometimes shows up around the court, dissented in a ruling that threw out a federal ban on videos of graphic violence inflicted on animals.

Evidently it is protected free speech to make and sell videos of pit bulls tearing each other to pieces. The original 1999 law the court threw out was drafted to stop the flourishing trade in videos of women crushing small, helpless animals to death with their feet, which is evidently a turn-on to some people.

Every state has an anti-cruelty law, but the federal statute was drafted to address cruelty administered anonymously, where the perpetrators cannot be identified on video. The man who made the pit bull video was prosecuted under this federal law by the George W. Bush administration in 2004 and sentenced to three years in prison. I guess this ruling means he could be back in business.

In this increasingly online world, fewer people are taking part in an actual act, yet millions are becoming a virtual audience -- is there a difference, ethically, legally, even criminally?

Sharing illegally downloaded music, even if you didn’t download it yourself, and watching illegally obtained DVDs, even if you didn’t sit in the movie theater with a video camera – those are offenses. Yet watching a video that shows criminal animal cruelty is not?

How does this work, then: buying and watching child porn is a crime, just as making child porn is, because having sex with children is a crime, and sharing in the fruits of that crime, even virtually, is also a crime.

Why should it be any different with torturing animals? If it’s a crime to do it, then it should be a crime to show it, to sell tickets or access to it, and to watch it -- even if the "watching" is by video or computer screen thousands of miles away. It implicitly and explicitly encourages the crime of animal cruelty as a profit-making venture.

If this is a mismatch between state and local laws, someone needs to knit up this dropped stitch. California Republican congressman Elton Gallegly says he’ll move ahead on a very narrow law banning crush videos – but at best, that just puts us right back where we were in 1999. (Or in 1599, with Tudor audiences cheering animal torture for amusement.) And that’s no place for a species that regards itself as superior to be.

Photo: Justice Samuel Alito. Credit: Mark Wilson / Getty Images

-- Patt Morrison

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