November 9, 2009
Frequently Asked Questions About Bob Stevens
First conviction under the Animal Cruelty Depictions Act
Who is Robert Stevens?
Bob Stevens is the defendant in the case pending before the Supreme Court, and was one of the first persons tried and convicted under the law the Court will be reviewing: the federal Depiction of Animal Cruelty Act. He was convicted in 2005 for selling videotapes graphically depicting and glorifying dogfighting, which is an illegal activity in all fifty states and federally. Stevens is a well-known figure in the dogfighting world, having written Dogs of Velvet and Steel, an instructional book for dogfighters and would-be dogfighters.
What is the status of the case against Stevens?
Stevens appealed his conviction to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. On July 18, 2008, the Court of Appeals overturned Stevens' conviction and found that the Depictions law, 18 U.S.C. § 48, violated the First Amendment. On April 20, 2009, the Supreme Court agreed to review the Court of Appeals' decision. The case was heard by the Supreme Court on October 6, 2009.
Isn't Stevens just a pit bull enthusiast who has documented the dogfighting industry?
No. Although Stevens has claimed to have no interest in promoting dogfighting, his own writings and the videos he was convicted for selling demonstrate the contrary. Stevens admits in his book that he has attended many dogfights, and his book goes into great detail concerning the best ways of training and preparing pit bulls for fighting matches. In addition, the videos that Stevens was convicted for selling are not documentaries in the journalistic sense. They are gruesome pro-dogfighting videos geared specifically to dogfighters. For example, his video "Pick a Winna" invites viewers to "see how you are at picking the winner," as Stevens acts as sportscaster for match after bloody dogfighting match. His video "Japan Pit Fights" similarly depicts a series of graphic dogfights from beginning to end. Stevens was convicted not only because he was distributing these videos, but because he was doing so for profit.
What does the federal Depiction of Animal Cruelty Act prohibit?
The statute criminalizes the interstate sale of depictions, such as video, in which "a living animal is intentionally maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded, or killed, if such conduct is illegal under Federal law or the law of the State in which the creation, sale, or possession takes place." There is a broad exemption for depictions with any "serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical, or artistic value," and the statute therefore does not impact art, journalism, or educational materials, among others, related to animal cruelty. In addition, under the plain terms of the statute, no depiction is prohibited unless the underlying cruelty is (a) unlawful in its own right and (b) being sold for profit.
What was the motivation behind the law?
The Depiction of Animal Cruelty Act was passed by Congress in 1999 with overwhelming bi-partisan support. It was intended to serve as a tool for law enforcement to combat extreme acts of animal cruelty, such as the filming of "crush" videos which depict women impaling or crushing small animals (including mice and kittens), often with high-heeled shoes, or sometimes with their bare feet. The law targets the commercial distribution of such depictions and removes the profit incentive for producing such videos, and thereby deters the underlying acts heinous acts of cruelty. These underlying acts of cruelty were otherwise going unpunished and undeterred due to their underground nature and the extreme difficulty law enforcement was facing in catching the producers in the act.
Has the law been successful at deterring "crush" videos?
Yes. After the passage of the law in 1999, the market for such videos all but disappeared. However, since the Court of Appeals declared the statute unconstitutional in 2008, there has been a resurgence of crush videos available for purchase on the internet.
Does the law prohibit journalists from reporting on animal cruelty?
No. As noted, the statute has a clear exemption for any depictions of cruelty that has serious journalistic value. Also, unless the depictions are being sold in interstate commerce for profit, they are not prohibited by the statute.
Does the law affect hunters' ability to take video or photos of their hunting trips?
No. First of all, the statute only prohibits depictions of cruelty that is in itself unlawful. Therefore, images of lawful hunting activities are not covered by the statute. There is also an exemption for journalistic or educational depictions, so an outdoor column with images of animals being killed or a website educating hunters would not be covered by the Act. In addition, the clear intent of the Depictions law was to target the most gruesome acts of cruelty, such as the despicable "crush videos" in which scantily clad women are shown impaling small animals with their bare or high-heel-clad feet, or images of grotesque and unlawful animal fights. Depictions of hunting activities are not within the ambit of the statute's intended targets, and prosecutors will not waste resources on such matters.
Does the law affect artists' ability to depict images of animal cruelty in their artwork?
No. As noted above, the law is narrowly drawn to prohibit only those depictions of cruelty to animals in which (a) the underlying cruelty is unlawful, and (b) the depiction itself has no redeeming political, social, journalistic, historical or artistic value. There is an exemption written directly into the statute that exempts depictions with artistic value. The law also criminalizes only depictions sold in interstate commerce for commercial gain. In reality, artists and journalists and others who are engaging in true forms of "expression," face no more scrutiny under this statute than they do under existing obscenity laws, which prohibit certain forms of obscenity and pornography that lack all expressive value.
What about depictions of cruelty to animals that is legal in other countries, such as bullfights?
Again, unless the depictions are being distributed for commercial gain in interstate commerce, they are not covered by the Act. And, as noted, the statute expressly exempts any depictions that contain serious artistic, journalistic, social, political, or historical value. Images of bullfights portrayed in the media would fall into that exempted category.
Isn't this law really just censorship?
The depictions law is no more censorship than any other law that limits a narrow category of activities in an effort to address a compelling government interest—here, cruelty to animals. The test for whether a particular depiction is prohibited under the Depictions law is essentially the same as the test for whether the production and sale of certain forms of human obscenity is illegal, and individuals who want to express themselves through imagery face no more threat from the Depictions of Cruelty Act than they now face under existing obscenity laws.
The HSUS' position in this case is guided by the simple principle that there is no reason that videos depicting actual animal cruelty should get more First Amendment protection than pornography does. The makers and sellers of videos strictly showing malicious acts of cruelty to animals, as with videos depicting child pornography, are not making an argument or expressing a viewpoint—they are simply profiting from extreme cruelty, from predation on the weakest among us. This is a far cry from the values that the First Amendment is supposed to protect. We wouldn't allow people to sell videos of actual child abuse or rape for profit, and the same legal principles are at hand with malicious acts of cruelty to animals, which are illegal in all states.
If depictions of animal cruelty are prohibited now, what will be next? Isn't it a slippery slope when we start regulating what people can say or photograph?
No. First, this statute is aimed at a narrow class of depictions of activity that is already unlawful. So the depictions law creates no more risk of a slippery slope related to restricting activities than already existed by way of the cruelty laws. In addition, it has always been the case that there are certain classes of depictions or "speech" that are prohibited because of the societal harm that such depictions create, such as child pornography, or other forms of obscenity. Other forms of speech are also illegal—such as speech that incites criminal activity—and yet such prohibitions have not led to additional, unfounded restrictions on speech.
Can't the cruelty underlying the "crush videos" that this law was passed to target be addressed through the cruelty laws that already exist in all states?
No. Unfortunately, due to the underground and secretive nature of the two main activities targeted by the Depictions law—the production of "crush" videos and animal fights—the vast majority of such activities would go unpunished and undeterred if not for the Depictions law. The statute was passed to enable law enforcement to target the commercial depictions of such activities, and thereby deter the underlying cruelty. Indeed, there was a lively market for crush videos prior to the enactment of the Depictions law, which meant thousands of animals suffering at the hands of the producers of such videos. After the law was passed in 1999, crush videos all but disappeared from the internet and other points of sale. Since the Court of Appeals overturned the law, crush videos have reemerged on the market, along with the suffering of untold numbers of defenseless animals.