In an 8-1 vote, this week the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a law that banned videos depicting animal cruelty. The justices ruled that the measure violated constitutional free-speech rights.
Congress had adopted the law in question in1999 as an attempt to prevent people from profiting from videos depicting animal killing and torture. The bill was primarily aimed at "crush" videos in which women in high-heeled shoes step on small animals as a type of sexual fetish, reports Reuters.
Opponents argued the bill was too broad and vague, making videos of such things as bullfights or hunting and even some documentaries illegal. They argued the bill was a form of government censorship.
The case presented to the high court involved Robert Stevens of Virginia, who made and sold three videos of pit bulls fighting each other and attacking hogs and wild boars. His 2005 conviction was the first under the 1999 law, Reuters reports. Stevens was received 37 months in prison, but had not served time as his case was on appeal.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, citing the law as too broad and therefore invalid under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment free-speech protections.
He acknowledged American law’s long history of addressing animal cruelty. But said there is no evidence of a similar tradition prohibiting depictions of such cruelty. He would not carve out a new category of speech unprotected by the First Amendment. The court created the last exception, related to child pornography, more than 25 years ago, Rueters reports.
U.S. Justice Department lawyers had argued animal cruelty videos should be treated like child pornography, not entitled to any constitutional protection. Usually, videos and other depictions are protected as free speech, even if they show abhorrent conduct.
Justice Samuel Alito was the one dissenting vote. He said the law could be validly applied to at least two broad categories of expression -- "crush" videos and dog-fighting videos.
He noted that the law was adopted to prevent horrific acts of animal cruelty, not to suppress speech. "The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, but it almost certainly does not protect violent criminal conduct," he wrote.
Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, urged Congress to adopt a more narrowly crafted law. "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," he said.
All 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as various other federal laws, already ban animal cruelty.