Skip to main content

IDA Aids Court Victory for Documentary Filmmakers

Today the US Supreme Court struck down a statute on First Amendment grounds that criminalized a lot of documentary filmmaking. Congress enacted a law to criminalize any depiction of any acts to animals in a film that results in the animals being killed or harmed, even if the activity on the screen is completely legal. Such a restriction would obviously cover hunting or fishing. The only requirement for prosecution was that the activity be illegal in the place that the film is possessed, exhibited or sold. Even though the act exempted serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical or artistic, Chief Justice Roberts, writing for an 8-1 Court decision, held the statute to be “substantially overbroad and therefore invalid under the First Amendment.”

Your IDA, along with Film Independent (FIND), the Independent Feature Project (IFP) and the Independent Film and Television Alliance (IFTA), filed an Amicus Brief to help the Court understand the threat to documentary filmmakers. The case involved a documentary filmmaker by the name of Robert J. Stevens, who had included clips of a legal Japanese dog fight in a film he produced. The government did not argue that Stevens shot the film or was even present at the shoot. Since dog fighting is illegal in the United States, Stevens was arrested, tried and sentenced to 37 months in federal prison–a term longer than Michael Vick received for actually participating in dog fights in the United States. Whatever one might think of Mr. Stevens and his films, the threat to filmmakers had to be removed. That is when IDA stepped in.

The case was brilliantly argued before the Supreme Court by Patricia Millet from the Washington, DC office of Akin Gump law offices. Former IDA President Michael Donaldson organized IDA’s participation in the case and recruited Film Independent, IFP and IFTA to join. He was in attendance at the hearing in Washington and joined other counsel after for a lunch honoring Millet’s hard work as lead counsel. Like Donaldson, she rendered her services on a pro bono basis.