Supreme Court rejects animal cruelty law, upholds free speech
The Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a 1999 federal law that criminalized depictions of animal cruelty such as dogfighting videos.
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The case before the high court involved a 68-year-old Virginia-based author and documentary producer named Robert Stevens who was convicted of violating the animal cruelty law after selling three videotapes about pit bulls to undercover agents. Mr. Stevens was sentenced to three years in prison. A federal appeals court threw the conviction out after declaring the law unconstitutional.Skip to next paragraph
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One of the Stevens films showed pit bulls catching wild boars during hunting trips. Another showed pit bulls engaged in a dog fight in Japan, where such fighting is legal. A third film included vintage dog fight footage shot in the US in the 1960s and 1970s before such fights were outlawed.
Stevens has said he included the dog fight and hunting depictions not to promote dog fighting, but to demonstrate aggressive characteristics that distinguish the pit bull breed from other dogs.
Stevens’ plight has attracted substantial attention among free speech advocates. They argued that the statute sought to declare an entire area of ideas and images off limits to the public. Unpopular, dangerous, and even repulsive speech has value in a free marketplace of ideas, free speech advocates said.
Animal rights activists countered that the law satisfies a compelling government interest in preventing the abuse and torture of animals. Such images of abuse are obscene, they said, and not worthy of First Amendment protection.
The Supreme Court opinion quotes then-President Bill Clinton upon signing the bill into law. Mr. Clinton said the executive branch would interpret the statute as applying only to depictions of “wanton cruelty to animals designed to appeal to a prurient interest in sex.”
In his opinion Roberts added, “No one suggests that the videos in this case fit that description.”
The Supreme Court last declared an entire category of speech unprotected by the First Amendment in 1982 when the justices said child pornography did not deserve constitutional protection.
Other forms of speech declared unprotected by the First Amendment include: fighting words in 1942; threats in 1969; speech inciting illegal activity in 1969; and obscenity in 1973.
Roberts said the high court was declining the government’s invitation to carve out a new First Amendment exception for depictions of animal cruelty.
“Maybe there are some categories of speech that have been historically unprotected, but have not yet been specifically identified,” he wrote. “But if so, there is no evidence that ‘depictions of animal cruelty’ is among them.’ “
The court’s action reverses Stevens’ conviction on different legal grounds than relied upon by the federal appeals court.
Roberts said the high court was not deciding whether a statute limited to so-called crush videos or other depictions of “extreme animal cruelty” would be constitutional.
In his dissent, Justice Alito, a former federal prosecutor, said the law could be applied to “at least two broad real-world categories of expression covered by the statute: crush videos and dogfighting videos.”
He noted: “The harm caused by the underlying criminal acts greatly outweighs any trifling value that the depictions might be thought to possess.”