Independent filmmakers fear that films like Apocalypse Now (in which a live water buffalo was hacked to death), documentaries about cruelty to animals, or even TV news footage of then-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin wolf hunting in Alaska, could earn their creators and distributors prison sentences if a 1999 law is restored by the Supreme Court.
A number of members of The Media Coalition have asked the High Court to uphold a lower court's decision to strike down a law banning depictions of animal cruelty, saying the law is overbroad and, as the Obama Administration is interpreting it, could give the federal government "substantial power to decide whether certain words and images are worthy of First Amendment protection."
Among those signing on to the friend of the court brief was the Independent Film & Television Alliiance, which represents distributors of indepdendent films including documentaries. Not signing on were the Motion Picture Association of America, according to its Web site, though it is also a member of the coalition. A theater owners group and documentary lobby were among the signatories, however.
MPAA had not returned a call at press time about why it chose not to join the others, but one veteran First Amendment attorney said he did not see a big speech threat in the law. He said it would likely "live in its own ittle corner" or jurisprudence, where the court would deal with the underlying conduct rather than get into settling First Amendment precedent about violent speech.
While the coalition makes it clear it believes that animal cruelty is abhorrent, it argues the government is breaking dangerous new ground in criminalizing the depictions.
“If the Court were to agree that speech about violence can be banned in order to discourage violence – in this case, cruelty to animals – it would imperil not just a wide range of speech that engages with the violent world in which we live but also speech concerning other conduct that may be viewed as undesirable and thus potentially subject to restriction,” the brief said.
The case deals with a Virginia man sentenced to over three years in prison in 2004 by a Pennsylvania federal court for selling videos showing pit bulls fighting and being trained to hunt boar.
The conviction was for violating a 1999 law that makes it a crime to sell, posess or distribute any depictions of animal cruelty. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the conviction, saying the law was unconstitutional. It was appealed to the Supreme Court, which decided to take the case.
Oral arguments of the case, U.S. v. Stevens, are scheduled to be heard in the Supreme Court Oct. 6.
Signing on to the brief in addition to IFTA were: The Association of American Publishers, The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, The Association of American University Presses, The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, The Entertainment Consumers Association, The Entertainment Merchants Association, Film Independent, The Freedom to Read Foundation, Independent Book Publishers Association, Independent Filmmaker Project, International Documentary Association, The National Association of Recording Merchandisers, The National Association of Theatre Owners, Inc., and PEN American Center.