Video: Supreme Court overturns animal cruelty law

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 4/20/2010 7:33:17 PM ET 2010-04-20T23:33:17

The Supreme Court struck down a federal law Tuesday aimed at banning videos that show graphic violence against animals, saying it violates the right to free speech.

The justices, voting 8-1, threw out the criminal conviction of Robert Stevens of Pittsville, Va., who was sentenced to three years in prison for videos he made about pit bull fights.

The law was enacted in 1999 to limit Internet sales of so-called crush videos, which appeal to a certain sexual fetish by showing women crushing to death small animals with their bare feet or high-heeled shoes.

The videos virtually disappeared once the measure became law, the government argued.

But Chief Justice John Roberts, writing the opinion for the majority, said the law goes too far, suggesting that a measure limited to crush videos might be valid. Animal cruelty and dog fighting already are illegal throughout the country.

Animal rights groups, including the Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and 26 states joined the Obama administration in support of the law.

The government sought a ruling that treated videos showing animal cruelty like child pornography, not entitled to constitutional protection.

'Alarming breadth'
But Roberts said the law could be read to allow the prosecution of the producers of films about hunting.

"We read [the law] to create a criminal prohibition of alarming breadth," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote.

"To begin with, the text of the statute’s ban on a 'depiction of animal cruelty' nowhere requires that the depicted conduct be cruel," he added. "That text applies to 'any . . . depiction' in which 'a living animal is intentionally maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded, or killed.'"

Roberts scoffed at the administration's assurances that it would only apply the law to depictions of extreme cruelty.

"But the First Amendment protects against the government," Roberts wrote. "We would not uphold an unconstitutional statute merely because the government promised to use it responsibly."

In dissent, Justice Samuel Alito said the harm animals suffer in dogfights is enough to sustain the law.

"The Court strikes down in its entirety a valuable statute... that was enacted not to suppress speech, but to prevent horrific acts of animal cruelty — in particular, the creation and commercial exploitation of 'crush videos,' a form of depraved entertainment that has no social value," he wrote. "The Court’s approach, which has the practical effect of legalizing the sale of such videos and is thus likely to spur a resumption of their production, is unwarranted."

Stevens ran a business, called Dogs of Velvet and Steel, and Web site that sold videos of pit bull fights. He is among a handful of people prosecuted under the animal cruelty law.

Stevens noted in court papers that his sentence was 14 months longer than professional football player Michael Vick's prison term for running a dogfighting ring.

A federal judge rejected Stevens' First Amendment claims, but the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled in his favor.

The administration persuaded the high court to intervene, but for the second time this year, the justices struck down a federal law on free speech grounds. In January, the court invalidated parts of a 63-year-old law aimed at limiting corporate and union involvement in political campaigns.

Free speech advocates cheered Tuesday's ruling.

"Speech is protected whether it's popular or unpopular, harmful or unharmful," said David Horowitz, executive director of the Media Coalition.

The group submitted a brief siding with Stevens on behalf of booksellers, documentary film makers, theater owners, writers' groups and others.

The Humane Society of the United States said in a statement that it was disappointed by the ruling.

"The Supreme Court's decision gives us a clear pathway to enact a narrower ban on the sale of videos depicting malicious acts of cruelty, including animal crush videos and dogfighting," Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, said. "Congress should act swiftly to make sure the First Amendment is not used as a shield for those committing barbaric acts of cruelty, and then peddling their videos on the Internet."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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