Art Community Speaks Out in Animal Cruelty Lawsuit
Source:Artinfo Date: 2009-07-31 Size:
The National Coalition Against Censorship and the College Art Association have jointly filed a brief in a Supreme Court case about depictions of animal cruelty. The case concerns 68-year-old Robert J. Stevens of Virginia, who was sentenced to 37 months in prison by a federal court in Pennsylvania for selling videos that showed pit bulls fighting and training to hunt wild boar. Stevens, who wrote a book called Dogs of Velvet and Steel about raising pit bulls, is accused only of depicting the acts, not organizing them.

The National Coalition Against Censorship and the College Art Association have jointly filed a brief in a Supreme Court case about depictions of animal cruelty. The case concerns 68-year-old Robert J. Stevens of Virginia, who was sentenced to 37 months in prison by a federal court in Pennsylvania for selling videos that showed pit bulls fighting and training to hunt wild boar. Stevens, who wrote a book called Dogs of Velvet and Steel about raising pit bulls, is accused only of depicting the acts, not organizing them.

Stevens was convicted under a 1999 federal law that makes it a crime to sell, create, or possess videos or other depictions of cruelty to animals for commercial use. Last summer, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia overturned Stevens's conviction, saying both the law and its application were unconstitutional.

The law allows for exceptions for work with "serious value," but the NCAC and the CAA argue that that stipulation, which fails to define "serious value," gives local prosecutors and juries the power to decide what sort of work possesses said value and is therefore worthy of First Amendment protection. The brief, in fact, includes a section titled "There Is A Real Risk That Prosecutors And Jurors Will Fail To Recognize The 'Serious Value' Of Conceptual And Avant-Garde Art," which lists other initially misunderstood avant-garde works, including Duchamp's Fountain (the urinal), Warhol's Campbell's Soup cans, and Brancusi's Bird in Flight.

The brief goes on to mention several contemporary works directly threatened by the law, including Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch's performances that combine fake crucifixion with the disemboweling of lambs and other animals; French-Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed's controversial works depicting, among other things, animals fighting one another and being clubbed to death for food or sport; and works by Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, who's previously tattooed pigs (and people) for his art.

The two organizations believe that not only artists, but also journalists, photographers, television and film producers, scientists, and academics are threatened by the law.

"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," said Svetlana Mintcheva, the NCAC's director of programs and an author of Censoring Culture: Contemporary Threats to Free Expression. "A core purpose of the First Amendment is to protect the right to express odious or offensive ideas or ideas that undermine moral and legal norms. We don't have to like the work and may even condemn it from an ethical standpoint — criminalizing it, however, forecloses an important discussion."

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