Supreme Court Overturns Animal Cruelty Law


Today the Supreme Court voted down a federal law banning the sale of videos and other depictions of animal cruelty, saying it violates the right to free speech. The law had been enacted in 1999 to limit Internet sales of videos that show women crushing to death small animals, like kittens and puppies, with bare feet or heels (such videos mostly disappeared after the law was enacted).

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the majority, said the law created “a criminal prohibition of alarming breadth” and that the government’s aggressive defense of the law was “startling and dangerous,” reports the New York Times.

The case came from the prosecution of Robert Stevens, who compiled and sold dog fighting videos and was sentenced to 37 months under the 1999 law.

While free speech activists applauded the 8-1 decision, animal rights groups and the Obama administration are not so happy. The government had pushed for a ruling treating animal cruelty videos like child pornography, outside the umbrella of constitutional protection. And while the government argued that the value of such material is so minimal as to be unworthy of First Amendment protection, the Supreme Court said that the government cannot choose to restrict expression on the basis of a message, ideas, subject matter, or content.

In a statement, PETA counters:

It is not in the spirit of the Constitution to allow or encourage gratuitous depictions of torture for sexual gratification or profit, which is why, in 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that child pornography was not protected by the First Amendment. Allowing these videos to be distributed can incite harm by encouraging others who are inclined toward violence to engage in cruel and felonious acts — for the camera or otherwise.

Animal cruelty and dog fighting remain illegal throughout the U.S., even if video depictions are not. But Justice Samuel Alito, who cast the lone dissenting vote, fears that the ruling “will spur new crush videos because it has ‘the practical effect of legalizing the sale of such videos.’ ”

The Humane Society expressed disappointment at the ruling but say they will continue to fight against animal cruelty, in videos and otherwise:

“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,” said Wayne Pacelle, president & CEO of the Humane Society. “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.”