Does "Conan the Barbarian" have serious artistic value? That's one of the intriguing questions raised by a case the U.S. Supreme Court will hear next Tuesday.
Because "Conan" includes footage of horses tripped by wires, it is arguably covered by a federal ban on depictions of animal cruelty.
If so, Amazon is committing a felony by selling it, unless it could convince a jury that the 1982 epic -- in which a bare-chested, codpiece-wearing future governor of California declares that the best thing in life is "to crush your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentation of their women" -- has "serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical or artistic value."
By inviting jurors to be film critics, with the consequences of a bad review including up to five years in federal prison, Congress has turned the First Amendment on its head. That lamentation you hear is the dismayed cry of the Framers at the blitheness with which the people's representatives seek to crush expression that offends them and drive politically incorrect thoughts from the realm of tolerable discourse.
Back in 1999, outraged by videos aimed at people who get a sexual thrill from watching women stomp on little animals, Congress made it a felony to create, sell or possess with intent to distribute a "depiction of animal cruelty." It defined the forbidden material as any visual or audio record of conduct that hurts an animal when the conduct is prohibited by federal law or the law of the state where the depiction is created, sold or possessed.
Although President Clinton said when he signed the law that it should be used to prosecute people only for material akin to the "crush videos" that provoked it, all three cases brought so far have involved footage of dogfights. In the case before the Supreme Court, Robert Stevens, a Virginia pit bull enthusiast, received a three-year prison sentence for selling two videos showing pit bulls fighting and one showing them hunting wild boar.