Friday, April 23, 2010

Animal Cruelty and the Supreme Court

By now, you have probably heard about the Supreme Court ruling striking down the law on which the case (and conviction) of a man who was selling videos that included dog fighting was based. Several of the dog lists to which I subscribe were immediately filled with messages of indignation. People were disgusted that the Supreme Court could rule in favor of dog fighting!

But of course that is a complete misunderstanding of just what is being ruled on here. The issue is actually one of free speech, the First Amendment. As I understand it, the videos were shot in a country in which dog fighting was at the time legal. The videos were not about dog fighting, per se, but about the Pit Bull and its heritage, or about hunting with dogs. The legislation on which the case was based did not specify "dog fighting" in any way, but was far more vague, with mentions of "animal cruelty" but without specifics of what that was.

If anyone remembers the debate about child pornography, before that law was brought into effect, and comments of "I know it when I see it," you might have some idea of the problems involved with vague definitions. I'm certainly against animal cruelty, but some of what I consider animal cruelty is actually broadcast of the National Geographic channel. . . and no legislators are crying for it to be taken off the air. In fact, while I would love to see it disappear from the airwaves, I would actually have to be AGAINST any legislation to accomplish that goal. Because it is subjective. And it is a matter of free speech.

Issues can get rather thorny when two strongly held beliefs run up against one another. Do I want to see videos including dog fighting available for sale? No. Do I want to ban some mushy, non-defined idea such as "animal cruelty"? Even more strongly no. Because if PETA got to decide what constitutes animal cruelty, my right to even own my dogs would disappear.

The Supreme Court justices indicated strongly that if the legislation is rewritten to be more focused and specific, they would have no problem with it. So there's really no big debate here. An unfortunate percentage of legislation is so broad as to have many unintended consequences, and that was the case here. Our lawmakers need to learn to understand the subtleties of a subject before they write laws about it. Then we'll all have more security and less debate about matters such as this.

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