Supreme Court voids law aimed at banning animal cruelty videos
By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 20, 2010; 11:48 AM
The Supreme Court struck down a federal law Tuesday aimed at banning videos depicting graphic violence against animals, saying that it violates the constitutional right to free speech.
Chief Justice John J. Roberts Jr., writing for an eight-member majority, said the law was overly broad and not allowed by the First Amendment. He rejected the government's argument that whether certain categories of speech deserve constitutional protection depends on balancing the value of the speech against its societal costs.
"The First Amendment's guarantee of free speech does not extend only to categories of speech that survive an ad hoc balancing of relative social costs and benefits," Roberts wrote. "The First Amendment itself reflects a judgment by the American people that the benefits of its restrictions on the Government outweigh the costs. Our Constitution forecloses any attempt to revise that judgment simply on the basis that some speech is not worth it."
The law was enacted in 1999 to forbid sales of so-called "crush videos," which appeal to a certain sexual fetish by depicting the torture of animals or showing them being crushed to death by women with stiletto heels or their bare feet. But the government has not prosecuted such a case. Instead, the case before the court, United States v. Stevens, came from Robert Stevens of Pittsville, Va., who was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison for videos he made about pit bull fighting.
Animal rights groups and 26 states had joined the Obama administration in support of the 1999 law. They argued that videos showing animal cruelty should be treated like child pornography rather than granted constitutional protection.
But Roberts said the federal law was so broadly written that it could include all depictions of killing animals, even hunting videos. He said the court was not passing judgment about whether "a statute limited to crush videos or other depictions of extreme animal cruelty would be constitutional."
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. was the lone dissenter.
"The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, but it most certainly does not protect violent criminal conduct, even if engaged in for expressive purposes," Alito wrote.
David Horowitz, executive director of the Media Coalition, said in response to the ruling: "We are gratified that the justices soundly rejected the government's invitation to create a new exception to the First Amendment. As today's ruling demonstrates, if the Court were to rewrite the First Amendment every time an unpopular or distasteful subject was at issue, we wouldn't have any free speech left. We continue to believe that animal cruelty is wrong and should be vigorously prosecuted, but as the Court today found, sending people to prison for making videos is not the answer."
The Media Coalition is an association that defends First Amendment rights and represents U.S. publishers, booksellers and producers and retailers of movies, videos, video games and other recordings.
The Humane Society of the United States said it was disappointed by the ruling but found hope in the majority's statement that it was not deciding whether a narrow statute targeting "crush videos" might be constitutional.
"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 in a statement. "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."
© 2010 The Washington Post Company