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The First Amendment and Animals

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Let me be clear at the outset: I love dogs. Not like them, love them. Of course, I love mine the best: Judy J. Estrich, Molly Emily Estrich and Irving A. Estrich. Judy is named after one of my dearest friends, Judy Jarvis, who died of cancer 10 years ago. Molly is named after her dog, who took care of her when she was sick and taught me not to be afraid of big dogs. Irving is named for my father. I would kill anybody who laid a hand on them.

That is why I so strongly support the efforts of Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., and Rep. James Moran, D-Va., to enact legislation aimed at prohibiting the sale and distribution of "crush" videos depicting senseless and vicious animal cruelty.

In 1999, according to the Humane Society of the United States, there were as many as 3,000 videos on the market depicting animals being crushed, burned or impaled for so-called "entertainment" value. After Gallegly's initial bill was enacted, the market disappeared. But earlier this week, the United States Supreme Court held that law to be unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds, finding that it swept too broadly and could be construed to apply (even though no one ever has) even to hunting videos.

Videos of women in high heels crushing puppies to death are a far cry from hunting videos. I'm glad that the conservative court has embraced the First Amendment, which they don't always do. But nothing in the First Amendment allows for the celebration of criminal cruelty. Just as we protect children through carefully tailored bans on child pornography, so should we be entitled to protect animals from the effects of gratuitous and criminal violence.

In 2008, a federal court of appeals struck down the law that Gallegly championed. Subsequently, the Humane Society found that the blatantly offensive videos that had disappeared from the market in 1999 were all over the Internet.

I was teaching a First Amendment class at that time and remember assigning my students the task of finding the "outer limit" of protected speech. I don't shock easily, but I was shocked. What kind of a person would make such things or watch them?

I understand the dangers of content-based regulation. I understand that the answer to bad ideas is debate and not censorship. But I am hard-pressed to come up with any argument as to the value of protecting depictions of criminal cruelty and the brutal murder of animals. These are not hunting videos we are talking about. They aren't images of slaughterhouses. Staging such events would be criminal (just ask Michael Vick), and recording them and selling them should be, too.

The new bill introduced by Gallegly and Moran this week would prohibit the interstate sale of images of animals being "intentionally crushed, burned, drowned or impaled" unless they have "religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historic or artistic value." Punishment is up to five years in prison, a fine of up to $10,000, or both. The draft bill, in an effort to satisfy First Amendment critics (including those in robes), specifically provides that it does not apply to hunting videos.

Don't expect all the critics to be satisfied. Andrew Tauber, an attorney who filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Supreme Court, is already being quoted today criticizing the bill as "presumptively unconstitutional." A new round of court challenges should be expected. Sign me up.

There's a famous Harry Truman quote I've always loved: "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog." Dogs are lucky to have good friends in Gallegly and Moran. They just need a few more on the court.


See Other Political Commentaries

See Other Commentaries by Susan Estrich

Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

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