They're Perverted, But Are They Protected?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Members of Congress have a pretty extensive exposure to all things sordid, but most of them were probably not prepared for what they heard and saw this week. On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee’s crime panel heard testimony from animal rights activists pushing for criminal penalties for traffickers of animal "squish" or "crush" movies. According to the Associated Press, the films, which feature the graphic torture and death of animals, are part of what one witness called a multimillion-dollar, worldwide industry. "It’s time to stop this windfall," said Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Ca.), the sponsor of the bill that would make it illegal to create, sell or possess any depiction of cruelty to animals. The laws would be enforced, one California deputy district attorney explained, in much the same way as those criminalizing the traffic of child pornography.

With all the well-funded causes filling up their hearing rooms, will Congress take the proliferation of animal crush films seriously? TIME senior writer Frederic Golden thinks so. "It’s not surprising to me at all that these movies are making it into Congressional hearings," he says. "The animal-rights movement is gaining a lot of momentum in the U.S., and they’ve got enormous support in Congress." But there is one obstacle the backers of the bill may not be able to jump over. "This is a classic First Amendment situation," says TIME senior reporter Alain Sanders. "The problem with the law the animal rights advocates are proposing is that it’s almost impossible to target only the evil you want to suppress." You run the risk, says Sanders, of eliminating other forms of expression: for example, documentaries about bullfights or cockfights, or movies in which cruelty to animals is simulated for legitimate purposes but not actually carried out. Sanders doubts this case is Supreme Court material, but even if it did end up on the Justices' docket, there’s little chance of a ruling against free speech. "The First Amendment," he says, "is the most closely guarded Amendment in the Supreme Court."