Supreme Court – is dogfight video free speech?
2 years ago I directed a DVD documentary called “Hood Dawgs” for a company in Orangeburg, SC. Hood Dawgs is about raising and breeding pit bulls, and touches on the disgusting and brutal ‘sport’ of dog fighting. I was kinda bummed, in fact borderline furious, at the marketing of the video…including the DVD cover and other things. It made it look like dog fighting was a new urban sport, with the tag line “In the hood, only one is left standing”. I had serious talks with the producer and took my real name off the DVD cover, and had my name spelled backwards in the credits.
I do not regret doing it, because the film itself has many great points against dog fighting – but in retrospect maybe I would have approached it a little differently. As a documentary filmmaker, I feel it is my duty to report what I see. Even though this story was not my idea – I was a for-hire director/editor, I tried to report what was really going on in a fair way – getting both sides of this story. For me though, this is the beauty of telling real life stories – the education. I would have fought for more control over the marketing and perhaps would have taken a firm stance instead of playing ‘reporter’.
It caused a buzz – a report on CNN, some articles… I had some idea that some of the b-roll footage we were using, found dog fight footage which was mailed to the producer anonymously, was going to be an issue. This happened right before the Michael Vick fiasco went down, so the Hood Dawgs DVD skyrocketed on Amazon.
Skip to last week – and in an unusual clash between free speech and an animal cruelty law, the Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide whether the government can make it a crime to sell videos of dogs fighting or animals being mauled.
The high court said it will rule on the case of Robert J. Stevens, a Virginia man who was convicted of selling videos of pit bulls fighting. He had advertised his videos in Sporting Dog Journal, which the government described as an underground publication that reports on illegal dogfights. Gross.
I have not seen Mr. Stevens’ film – nor do I care to, really – but it DISGUSTS me that some people might be leaving the journalism part out of it – and were beginning to sell dog fight videos as entertainment. Pitiful, disgraceful, yuck. Reports are that one gruesome scene showed the dogs ripping the jaw off of a pig. Really, people?
Stevens mailed the videos to federal agents in Pittsburgh, and was the first person prosecuted under a new federal law against depictions of animal cruelty. A jury convicted him, and he was sentenced to three years in prison.
Last year, however, a federal appeals court in Philadelphia voided his conviction and ruled the federal law unconstitutional on 1st Amendment grounds. The judges said that although animal cruelty is illegal, depictions of animals being cruelly treated are protected as free expression. In a brief filed last month, Stevens’ lawyers said he was devoted to training pit bulls and insisted he “does not promote illegal dog fighting.”
Government lawyers had urged the high court to hear the case.
“Graphic depictions of the torture and maiming of animals” have no “redeeming societal value,” they said in their petition. I agree.
But critics of the measure said it is too broad and potentially could make it illegal to broadcast scenes of hunting or bullfighting. I am not a lawyer, just an artist – but I also agree here. We have to retain the right to report on this, and other human atrocities, and I stress the word “report” – however gruesome, to make it disappear from our culture.
All 50 states have laws against animal cruelty and dog fighting. In 1999, Congress moved to combat an underground trade in videos that showed dogs viciously fighting each other and mauling helpless animals. Good. That we don’t need.
The measure made it a crime to make, sell or own images of “animal cruelty” for the purpose of making money. It referred to depictions of a living animal being “intentionally maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded or killed” when such conduct would be illegal. It included exceptions for depictions that have serious religious, scientific, educational or artistic value. “Hood Dawgs”, would fall under this category.
In their appeal, government lawyers said the federal law was needed to halt the trade in dog-fighting videos. “Depictions of animal cruelty . . . are unworthy of 1st Amendment protection,” they said.
I wholeheartedly, 100% agree. Sounds like a documentary itself. Stay tuned.