Keith Srakocic/AP
Robert Stevens

Supreme Court to Decide if Animal Rights Law Violates Free Speech

April 21, 2009 06:40 PM
by Rachel Balik
The U.S. Supreme Court has said it will hear a case determining if a 1999 federal law prohibiting depictions of animal cruelty violates the First Amendment.

Free Speech or Animal Rights?

After the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the conviction of a man sentenced to 37 months in prison for violating a 1999 federal law banning depictions of animal cruelty, the Supreme Court will now review the case to determine if the law is in fact unconstitutional, as the circuit court asserted.

Reuters reports that Robert Stevens was convicted in 2005 in Virginia for selling videos of pit bulls fighting. Stevens appealed the case and three years later, the appeals court stated that even if the depictions were gruesome, the videos were protected under free speech. The Supreme Court expects to hear the case in fall 2009.

Background: Stevens’ conviction and appeals

In a 10-3 vote, the appeals court’s 2008 ruling was that while laws prohibiting certain depictions, such as child pornography, are seen as exceptions to the free speech laws, the animal cruelty law was not one of them.

In the majority opinion, Judge D. Brooks Smith explicitly rejected the government’s argument that animal cruelty was akin to child pornography. Furthermore, since there are already laws in all 50 states prohibiting animal cruelty, the law is unnecessary, the Legal Intelligencer reported. The dissenting opinion argued that to the contrary, the federal government has a “compelling interest in protecting animals from wanton acts of cruelty.”

Opinion & Analysis: Fairly applying free speech to the case

The law was initially put into place to stop “crush videos,” sexual fetish videos involving women crushing small dogs with high heels, The New York Times reports. When Bill Clinton signed the law, he stated that it should only be applied in fetish cases.

Stevens’ case is particularly difficult because the activity in the videos he sold most likely took place in countries where it is not illegal. Amy Adler, a law professor at New York University, explained that the child pornography laws were put into place to discourage the production of videos. But she told the Times that the animal cruelty law is not comparable; it is highly unlikely that an American law would stop bullfights in Spain, for example.

Even Scott Heiser, Director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s Criminal Justice program, called the facts in Stevens’ case “weak.” He notes that the videos are nothing like the offensive crush videos that inspired the law.

Reference: Depiction of animal cruelty

The complete text of the 1999 Depiction of Animal Cruelty law is published in full on the Cornell University Law School Web site.

The Brief in Opposition, filed by Stevens’ defense attorneys in preparation for the impending Supreme Court case, has been uploaded to the online publishing site Scridb. The full document, as well as some opinionated commentary, are available. The commentary notes that Stevens was the first person found guilty for videotaping dog fighting under this law.

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