In a friend-of-the-court brief filed this week in an important Supreme Court free speech case, NCAC, joined by the College Art Association, warned that a law banning depictions of animal cruelty violates the First Amendment right to free speech, and the exemption it provides for work with “serious value” rings hollow, given the long history of censorship of disturbing or unpopular images.

At issue in U.S. v. Stevens, No. 08-769 is a 1999 federal law that makes it a crime to sell, create or possess videos and other depictions of cruelty to animals for commercial use. Violators are subject to up to five years in prison for each count as well as fines.

It might sound like a good way to prevent animal cruelty, but as written, the law invites subjective judgments about what work has “serious value” and creates a real risk that it will be used to punish the expression of ideas that are unpopular, unwelcome, or unfamiliar.

Our Director of Programs Svetlana Mintcheva reminds us, “The fact that we have determined as a society that animal cruelty should be prohibited does not mean that speech about animal cruelty or images of such acts can be similarly prohibited.”

The law threatens artists, journalists, photographers, television and film producers, scientists, academics, and others if their works-despite having “serious value” when considered as a whole-contain depictions of animal cruelty that juries may find lack such value when viewed in isolation.  Documentary filmmakers  beware: video footage of a bullfight from a travel documentary on Spain, when viewed without the context of the program, would by definition be grounds for prosecution since it depicts animal harm that is illegal in this country.

NCAC’s executive director Joan E. Bertin puts it into a scary perspective:

The government could argue, as it has with regard to depictions of animal cruelty, that flag burning, as well as some video games, rap music, and videos are not protected by the First Amendment because their social costs outweigh their value. This would overturn more than half a century of First Amendment law holding that even material with no discernible social value is, in the words of the Court, ‘as much entitled to the protection of free speech as the best of literature.’

Can’t there be a way to protect the animals without reversing 50 years of free speech law to do it?

Read the amicus brief online.