Congressman Elton Gallegly says a new bill calling for a federal ban of so-called “crush videos” — torturous depictions of small animals being killed for sexual pleasure — will easily pass the House of Representatives and replace previous legislation overturned last month by members of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Wasting no time, Gallegly, Republican of the 24th Congressional District in Simi Valley, proposed HR 5092 late last month, just one day after another anti-animal cruelty law he co-authored in 1999 was struck down by the court on First Amendment grounds.
“We’re doing very well,” commented Gallegly last week. “I didn’t introduce the bill until (April 22), and we already have 100 co-sponsors.”
The new bill is again proposed by Gallegly and Democratic Virginia congressman Jim Moran, who, as founders of the Animal Protection Caucus, rushed to craft updated legislation before production and sale of animal crush videos take hold on the underground video market.
Just one subset of the extreme sexual fetish movie industry, the videos often portray small animals, like hamsters, rabbits and kittens, being crushed to death on camera by a woman’s bare foot or high heel.
The justices ruled that the prior law, HR 1887, wasn’t specific enough in defining the illegality of crush videos, however, and that other free speech-protected media, like hunting magazines or tapings of rodeo shows, could be unfairly affected by it. Their 8-1 decision arose from the conviction of Virginia filmmaker Robert Stevens, for distributing dog fighting videos. After the conviction was overturned the United States sought review before the Supreme Court. Justice Sam Alito cast the lone dissenting vote.
“The main thrust of the Supreme Court’s decision was that the original law was too broad and it would allow the prosecution of many, many legitimate publications,” says Roger Myers, an attorney with the First Amendment Coalition.
Wendy Lascher, a Ventura attorney who specializes in First Amendment law, says that the controversial subject matter makes the argument over free speech, and how it applies to animal crush videos, even more important for the success of Gallegly’s newest proposal.
“There’s a great sensitivity to protecting things under the First Amendment,” she says. “There’s a great concern if you say, ‘We don’t like these videos, they’re nasty and awful.’ There are all sorts of other things. Some people won’t like a picture of abortions. That’s why the Supreme Court says the law has to be specifically crafted.”
HR 1887 came about after former Ventura County District Attorney Michael Bradbury led the prosecution of Gary Thomason, a Thousand Oaks man convicted on animal cruelty charges for producing crush videos.
The district attorney’s office had uncovered video footage of animals nailed or stapled to the floor before women in high-heeled shoes would “stomp the life out of them,” Bradbury remembers.
“We’d seen all forms of pornography, but what was highly chilling and disturbing was the fact that small animals were being slaughtered in the making of the videos,” he says.
As soon as the Gallegly/Moran collaboration resulted in President Clinton’s signing of the law in 1999, crush videos disappeared, according to Gallegly. It effectively placed a halt on an industry with more than 2,000 videos in circulation, some movies selling for $400 a piece.
Still, because it was difficult to track down who was secretly producing the videos, lawmakers decided to go after the people distributing them.
“The best way to go about it was the people who were selling the tapes,” Gallegly recalls. “It literally stopped the business overnight.”
The law’s concentration on video distribution gave rise to questions of unfair limitation on free speech. HR 5092 is designed to rectify that with a better, narrower description of crush videos.
“The term ‘animal crush video,’ ” reads a copy of the proposed bill, “means any visual depiction, including any photograph, motion picture film, video recording, or electronic image, which depicts animals being intentionally crushed, burned, drowned, or impaled.”
“We’re disappointed the original one was overturned,” says Cyndy Treutelaar, president of the Ventura County Humane Society. “This is definitely a blow to animals.”
Even armed with a newer, fresher piece of legislation, Congress may still have a hard time going up against the Supreme Court in the matter, according to attorney Myers.
“I don’t think it’s going to be all that easy to address the Supreme Court’s ruling. They’re going to have to be very specific,” he says. “It’s not so much the controversial subject matter, it’s how do you narrow it so it doesn’t prohibit something under First Amendment protection?”
Gallegly says he’s been criticized over the attention he’s given to stopping animal crush videos when other, more active issues are at hand. But he feels the historical link between animal cruelty and other crimes is too strong for anyone, even the Supreme Court, to ignore.
“When you look at the bigger picture,” he notes, “we have people like Jeffrey Dahmer and the Son of Sam and historical serial killers, who started their careers killing people and creating a threat to society; they all started with acts of animal cruelty.”
While he says he fully supports the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment, Gallegly also expressed his disappointment that common sense hasn’t prevailed in the issue.
“It’s a pretty sad story when you have to go all the way to Congress to find a method to stop this kind of activity,” he says.
And though he remains confident that the new bill will pass because of its very specific wording, the ultimate irony is that there is no true way, Gallegly says, to properly express the terrible inhumanity of crush videos.
“I don’t know that words could describe it,” he says. “Any human being that does not find those types of acts of cruelty, killing a puppy or a kitten with stiletto heels … to say they’re perverted is an understatement.”