Why NPR Wanted To Overturn The Law Banning Animal Cruelty Images

On Tuesday, NPR reported on the Supreme Court decision to strike down a law banning images of animal cruelty. But the network was also part of the story.

All Things Considered host Robert Siegel closed the April 20 story, adding that NPR had filed a brief with other news organizations arguing that the law banning the so-called "crush videos," and other images of animal cruelty was unconstitutional.

Some in NPR's audience decided that meant NPR supports publishing videos and photos of people being cruel to animals.

"If I heard correctly, NPR provided a position paper to the court in support that the law was wrong, that it not be illegal to make these films," said Robert Burkbank, of Endwell, NY. "We both decided to stop giving any more donations to NPR."

There's no doubt "crush videos" are offensive. You don't have to see them to know that crushing a small animal to death with high heels is hideous. But that is not the point.

Media organizations consider this strictly a First Amendment issue.

"The media amicus brief in no way supported cruelty to animals. Such activities are already illegal in all states," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "The media companies that signed this brief understood immediately what was at stake: The ability to inform the public."

NPR joined with the Reporter's Committee, the New York Times, the Radio and Television News Directors Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, MediaNews Group and the National Press Photographers Association in protesting this law.

"NPR's interest is not in preventing the legitimate prosecution of such crime," said Joyce Slocum, NPR's General Counsel, "but in the effect of the statute on NPR's ability to report on such issues."

Slocum noted that NPR has reported on dog fighting, puppy mills, killing of bison and wolves and other animal cruelty incidents. Sometimes NPR ran photos on npr.org depicting the alleged mistreatment and provided those images to member stations.

"While the federal statute contained some exceptions, including journalistic use, those exceptions were not adequate," said Slocum.

NPR believes that the law, as it stood, could have been misused to criminalize speech about the use and abuse of animals.

"In NPR's view," Slocum said, "the statute could allow the federal government and courts presiding over cases brought under the law, to substitute their own news judgment in place of the judgment of an NPR editor."

Dalglish, an attorney, said the law "would have made it a crime for journalists to report a story and show video or pictures of bull fighting, cock fighting or even hunting. This was just about the most poorly drafted federal law I've ever seen."

Slocum and Dalglish both felt the law, as written, provided a chilling effect on journalists going after animal abuse stories.

"We should encourage more reporting of these activities rather than chill the media and other public interest groups from reporting on them," said Dalglish.

I understand how the Burbanks could be offended by NPR's position in this case. But I hope they will reconsider and realize that the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press would not have challenged this law unless freedom of speech and expression were at risk.

As George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen noted Thursday on the Diane Rehm Show, "The First Amendment is always for people we hate."

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