An example of better focussed speech regulation

Via Crime and Consequences, we learn that the US president has just signed the ”Animal Crush Video Prohibition Act of 2010”. The law is in response to a successful appeal by a company that was distributing images of extreme animal cruelty. Though not targeting the same material as the ban on extreme pornography in the UK, it is interesting to note the way the act has been written:

DEFINITION.–In this section the term ‘animal crush video’ means any photograph, motion-picture film, video or digital recording, or electronic image that–

(1) depicts actual conduct in which 1 or more living nonhuman mammals, birds, reptiles, or amphibians is intentionally crushed, burned, drowned, suffocated, impaled, or otherwise subjected to serious bodily injury (as defined in section 1365 and including conduct that, if committed against a person and in the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States, would violate section 2241 or 2242); and

(2) is obscene.

Note especially how the law carefully limits the images to depictions of ‘actual conduct’, thereby excluding fictional representations. This is exactly the sort of tightened definition that would have prevented many unintended consequences if such foresight had been applied to the ban on extreme pornography. It is also ironic that, despite the more narrow focus of the act, real animals are perhaps now better protected from certain types of real violence in the US (conducted for the purposes of creating media) than are human participants creating pornography in the UK. It is unfortunate that the definition also has to rely on the rather fuzzy concept of ‘obscene’. Nevertheless, it is much clearer what the US government has decided (arguably with reasonable grounds) to restrict.

Of course, we should not necessarily thank superior legislators in the United States’ federal government for this better defined law, but rather the institutional checks they are up against. Laws that regulate speech in the US have to be very carefully drafted if they are not to be struck down by the Supreme Court, which has taken an increasingly literal interpretation of the US’s First Amendment rights.