Thursday, July 24, 2008

U.S. v. Stevens: Violence good, prurience bad

As I mentioned, the Third Circuit this week in United States v. Stevens (PDF) held that a federal law, 18 U.S.C. Section 48, that criminalizes the sale of depictions of animal cruelty, violates the First Amendment. The court refused to treat depictions of animal cruelty as a category of unprotected speech.

Why? The court stated a lot of reasons, but I think it comes down to this: there's no sex. This is, as the court put it, "non-prurient" speech, and the same reasons that have been invoked to ban sexual speech can't be applied to ban this sort of speech, which is about depictions of cruelty with no sexual element.

The court even suggested that the statute would have been unconstitutional had Congress limited its scope to depictions of animal cruelty with sexual elements. It noted that the original impetus for the law was concern about "crush videos," a purported fetish genre in which leggy women crush small animals beneath their heels. The court quotes a House report: "In some video depictions, the woman's voice can be heard talking to the animals in a kind of dominatrix patter." The court essentially faults Congress for deviating (so to speak) from this narrow focus to a "broader focus on animal cruelty."

And while the court states some other reasons why this change in focus makes a difference, ultimately it comes down to this: the First Amendment, as construed by the courts, treats sexual speech differently and much less favorably than nonsexual speech, however objectionable it may be. The court specifically notes that the defendant in this case was not accused of producing "crush videos" but rather videos of dog fights. The opinion seems strongly to imply that if Stevens's dog fight videos had but included "a kind of dominatrix patter," sending him to jail would have been just fine.

And this is what is so insane about obscenity. To my mind, there is no compelling difference between criminalizing the distribution of depictions of child sexual abuse, and criminalizing the distribution of depictions of serious physical - but not sexual - child abuse. The fact is that we're talking about marketing a crime. The analogy between this and dog-fighting videos may or may not be sound, but the sexual element shouldn't make the difference. That it does so signals a basic fear and loathing of sexuality, above and beyond violence, at the core of our obscenity doctrine, which allows the criminalization of depictions of perfectly legal activities.

There is, of course, more to the decision:

The Government in this case argued that the law was closely analogous to those banning child pornography, and should be upheld for basically the same reasons. At face value, it would seem that some of the key justifications for banning child pornography apply to depictions of animal cruelty: the material at issue depicts criminal conduct that society has an interest in deterring, and the market of depictions of such cruelty creates an incentive for cruel acts. A key difference is that unlike child pornography, it cannot be said that the very distribution of such materials re-victimizes the animals that experience that cruelty. (Aside from the obvious reasons, the animals rarely survive.)

The court rejected this analogy, and ultimately I think its conclusion came down to this, the opening of the opinion:
The Supreme Court has not recognized a new category of speech that is unprotected by the First Amendment in over twenty-five years.
In other words, this would be a significant innovation in First Amendment law, and we're not going to be the ones to make it, however good the arguments.

The court said a lot more than this, but most of what it said was pretty mushy. Aside from the distinction I've drawn above with child pornography, the court said this:
Preventing cruelty to animals, although an exceedingly worthy goal, simply does not implicate interests of the same magnitude as protecting children from physical and psychological harm.
While most people would probably agree, the court admits that where the "compelling" cutoff lies "has not always been crystal clear." For the court, it comes down to this: the precedents generally concern the interests of humans. (The court tries to ground this distinction in a Free Exercise decision [Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah] that protected a religious group's right to sacrifice animals, but that case seems inapposite: there the Supreme Court didn't so much say preventing animal cruelty wasn't a compelling interest as it said that the government couldn't permit animal killings for most reasons but ban it when done for religious reasons.)

The court also found lacking the animal-cruelty statute's exception for works with "serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical, or artistic value." The difference is that with obscenity the work must be "taken as a whole," whereas the animal-cruelty law had no such restriction.

Beyond that shortcoming, however, the court sees another problem that I think is very telling. It notes that this type of exceptions clause has never been applied to "
non-prurient" speech, and that "outside of patently offensive speech that appeals to the prurient interest, the First Amendment does not require speech to have serious value in order for it to fall under the First Amendment umbrella." So we're back to the prurient/non-prurient distinction.

This case, like the FCC nipple case, and the Child Online Protection Act case, is almost certainly destined for the Supreme Court, since a federal statute has been declared invalid. As with previous cases concerning the boundaries of the First Amendment, it's very unlikely the Court will reconsider any of the basic problems with its decisions on obscenity and indecency, but it will surely be an interesting ride.

1 comment:

Charles Thomas said...

The sex/violence dichotomy is free speech law is one that has always baffled me. The gov't has spent millions trying to put away the guy who created the Girls Gone Wild videos, while standing helpless against the creators of the Bum Fight videos.

Consider a hypo- a person in another country (where child abuse is taken less seriously) beats the stuffing out of children and records it on video. He then posts said videos on the net, where they are viewed by an American (to his utter enjoyment, for the purposes of the hypo). Under the present state of the law, the American has done nothing illegal; nor has the person who posted the video. The first amendment protects this entire scenario (although I can also think of an argument where an American prosecutor charges the American viewer with child abuse on an accomplice liability theory, i.e., the existence of the audience aids and abets the producer of the video, I doubt it would work, but that has yet to stop any prosecutor I've ever met).

This is a country still in the grip of many puritanical notions about sex and violence (as befits a nation founded by Puritans). Displays of sex and sexuality are met with howls of outrage, while brutality is met with a shrug - or perhaps even overt approval. Pound for pound, the USA is the most violent developed nation on earth, and this violence has official sanction (what else to call the 3,300 + people on death row).

So it is hardly surprising that a court (particularly the Third Circuit, not known for going out on limbs) would pursue the course it has chosen. American law, a byproduct of American consciousness, treats sex as something out of bounds - violence, well that's just American.