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Court to weigh free-speech issue of pit bull case

Lawmakers are looking to limit the sale of tapes that depict animal cruelty, but a federal appeals court says it would illegally infringe on First Amendment rights.
Image: pit bull
The government says banning the sale of videos of dog fights is justified by a "compelling interest in protecting animals from wanton acts of cruelty."Mario Tama / Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Supreme Court said Monday it will explore a dark corner of Americans' fascination with animals, whether the sale of videos depicting dog fights and violent deaths of small animals is protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech.

The justices in the fall agreed to hear arguments in the government's appeal of a court ruling that struck down a federal law aimed at the sale of images of animal cruelty.

Lawmakers were especially interested in limiting the sale of tapes of fights between pit bulls and so-called crush videos that show women crushing to death small animals, often with their bare feet or high-heeled shoes.

The federal appeals court in Philadelphia said the law, enacted in 1999, illegally restricts speech, although it acknowledged that preventing cruelty to animals is a worthy goal.

Robert Stevens of Pittsville, Va., was convicted and sentenced to 37 months in prison for selling videos of pit bull fights. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also reversed the conviction.

The appeals court described one video as including a "gruesome depiction of a pit bull attacking the lower jaw of a domestic farm pig."

Still, it rejected the government's argument that the law is justified by a "compelling interest in protecting animals from wanton acts of cruelty."

In other action Monday, the court:

  • Seemed skeptical of holding the current Iraqi government responsible in American courts for the acts of Saddam Hussein's regime. The case involves Americans, including CBS News correspondent Bob Simon, who sued Iraq after being held captive during the Gulf War in 1991.
  • Appeared divided over a federal court's continuing power to tell Arizona to spend more money to educate students who aren't proficient in English.
  • Rejected a challenge from a death row inmate in Texas over jurors' use of a Bible during their deliberations on his sentence.
  • Agreed to release audio recordings soon after the argument on April 29 over a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.

In the animal cruelty case, the court said every state already has laws banning animal cruelty and dogfighting. The government does not have the same sort of interest in pursuing the makers of the animal videos that it has in going after people who distribute images of child pornography, the court said.

The Obama administration, picking up arguments first made by the Bush administration, said that Congress reasonably concluded that harm from the videos far outweighs any expressive content that may be restricted by the law.

The Humane Society of the United States, backing the government, says the 1999 law played a critical role in stopping the spread of crush videos, which rarely show the faces of participants.

Crush videos have returned to the Internet since the appeals court ruling, the Humane Society said.

The case is U.S. v. Stevens, 08-769.