Supreme Court Blocks Law Banning Animal Cruelty Videos

A federal law designed to stop the sale of videos depicting animal cruelty has been defeated in the Supreme Court in order to protect freedom of speech.

Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court voted 8-1 in favor of a defendant who was being prosecuted for marketing and selling videos showing pit bull dogs attacking each other and other animals in staged fights. The government, the Humane Society and 26 states are in favor of the law, which bans the marketing and selling of any material that depicts animal cruelty, but the court ruled that the law goes against the constitutional right of freedom of speech. The only existing law that is in contradiction of freedom of speech is that which governs child pornography.

Robert Stevens, of Pittsville, Virginia, ran a business called Dogs of Velvet and Steel, which sold videos depicting dog fighting. He was found to be advertising these videos in Sporting Dog Journal, an underground dog fighting magazine. After the ruling, Stevens told the news media that he was not a promoter of dog fighting, and was in fact a journalist and an author. He was initially sentenced to 37 months in prison in 2004, but the sentence was not served pending appeal. This was the first case to proceed to trial under the law since it’s conception in 1999.

Chief Justice John Roberts concluded that Congress had failed to show that depictions of dog fights justified a special category of exclusion from the right of free speech. As an example, the law would prevent even a news agency from producing an undercover documentary that included evidence of dog fighting. However, Justice Samuel Alito, who voted against Stevens, said that the most disturbing aspect raised by the appeal was the marketing of so-called "crush" videos, in which women crush helpless small animals under their feet. Alito suggested that these videos would become more widespread because the ruling had in effect made them legal. Chief Justice Roberts suggested that a law specifically banning these videos might be a valid avenue to explore.

In response to the judgement, Wayne Pacelle, President and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, said: "We have a consensus in society that animal fighting and malicious animal crush videos constitute cruelty. In order to give those values meaning, we need a set of laws that not only prohibit the core conduct, but also the sale of videos showing the illegal conduct."

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