posted by Christopher Howard — Jul 28, 2009
US v. Robert Stevens involves a section of a federal statute (18 U.S.C. § 48) that makes it a crime to own, possess, or display depictions of animal cruelty if the acts portrayed are illegal in the state where someone owns, possesses, or sells them—even if the acts portrayed weren’t illegal when or where they were performed. The actual case involves a man who was convicted under the statute for a video about pit bulls that contained footage of dogfights in places where they were legal—not to promote dog fighting but to describe how the dogs have been/are used. The conviction was reversed on appeal on the ground that the prohibition on the depiction alone violates the First Amendment, and the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case. It is important to emphasize, though, that cruelty to animals itself is illegal in most states, and CAA is not advocating for the repeal of those laws—just the law that bans any depiction of animal cruelty.
CAA has signed an amicus curiae brief prepared by the National Coalition Against Censorship that will discuss the implications for free expression, focusing on some well-known art situations, such as Adel Abdessemed’s cancelled show at San Francisco Art Institute, Wim Delvoye’s tattooed pigs, and Hermann Nitsch’s performances. Whatever the ethical issues such work raises, we claim that pure expression—as opposed to actual acts of animal cruelty—should not be subject to criminal penalties, and that the government’s argument in favor of criminalizing speech if its “social cost” outweighs its “value” is so far-reaching that it would chill all kinds of protected expression and exhibition.
This case is relevant to not only artists but also art-history professors, as they may want to teach about ethical issues in art, including the treatment of animals in bioart, etc. The law as it stands might chill their ability to show such work.
The College Art Association joins the National Coalition Against Censorship in urging the Supreme Court to uphold the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in striking down Section 48 as unconstitutional. Section 48 is unconstitutional because it could deter and punish the production, distribution, and even the simple possession of constitutionally protected speech. If the decision is reversed, not only will some lawful expression depicting animals being killed or injured be subject to criminal sanction, but the ramifications are also far-reaching: Congress and the states could outlaw the creation and possession of artworks that depict certain types of conduct simply on the basis that the conduct itself is illegal.
This would chill a wide range of expression, including, potentially, art that depicts such criminal activities as terrorist acts, drug use, and certain types of sexual behavior. Although CAA does not condone cruelty to animals or any other sort of unlawful conduct, CAA has long and firmly opposed artistic and scholarly censorship of all kinds.
Paul B. Jaskot, President, College Art Association
Professor, Department of Art and Art History, DePaul University
Linda Downs, Executive Director, College Art Association