According to a story appearing in the New York Times this week, the U.S. Supreme Court may soon hear an unusual First Amendment case that could put some high-profile animal rights groups out of business. And they don’t even seem to see it coming. The case surrounds a 1999 federal law that criminalized the creation, sale, or possession of videos and photos depicting animal cruelty for commercial gain. The law has since been struck down, but now the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is rallying support to restore it because it made distributing dogfighting videos and (truly bizarre) animal "crush" videos illegal. We have just one question: Is fundraising to foot the bill for six-figure activist salaries considered "commercial gain"?
HSUS and its lesser sibling, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), routinely use videos of animal cruelty to disgust donors into opening their wallets. Every year, the two animal rights organizations use the shock value of undercover slaughterhouse footage and seal-hunting videos (to name just a few categories) in order to raise their $165 million in combined budgets. That’s where the six-figure salaries come in — HSUS president Wayne Pacelle, for instance, makes $234,000 in salary and benefits.
Fair is fair. If the Supreme Court wants to ban the distribution of some profitable depictions of animal cruelty, it’s also appropriate for HSUS and PETA to cease their own macabre fundraising blitzes. Should the contested law be resurrected, much of what the groups peddle on their websites could be illegal.
Consider, on the one hand, a dogfighting film or a sexually prurient video of furry animals being crushed to death. On the other, footage showing an uncommon slaughterhouse worker illegally abusing livestock animals. These activities are all illegal. The law can’t — and shouldn’t — allow anyone to claim that one is objectionable while another is "motivating" or "eye-opening."
Animal rights leaders should be careful what they wish for. If HSUS and PETA truly want these images kept out of the public eye, they should start by cleaning up their own offensive propaganda films first.
"What’s good for the goose," the saying goes.