Supreme Court Strikes Down Ban On Animal Cruelty Videos

Ken AshfordConstitution, Supreme CourtLeave a Comment

In 1999, Congress passed a law banning the sale or display (i.e., on the Internet) of animal cruelty.  The law was passed in response to "crush videos" — i.e., videos of women in high heels stepping on kitten's skulls (yes, there is a fetish for everything nowadays).

It's hard not to applaud such a law, which received wide bipartisen support.

Shortly after it was passed, Robert Stevens of Pittsville, Va., was found guilty of violating the law, and was sentenced to three years in prison for videos he made about pit bull fights.

The case worked its way up through the courts, based on this one simple question:  Was the federal law making it a crime to depict animal cruelty in commercial expression substantially overbroad?

The First Amendment prohibits the government from passing laws which violate one's right to free speech.  There are exceptions — death threats to the president, for example — but when Congress passes such a law which curbs speech, the law must be narrowly tailored to ban the specific action — i.e., it can't be too broad.  That was the argument that Stevens made.

A federal judge rejected Stevens' First Amendment claims, but the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled in his favor.  I blogged about this case back in October.

And now the Supreme Court has affirmed the Third Circuit, 8-1.  The Court noted that it had previously withdrawn “a few historic categories” of speech from the First Amendment’s shield, but concluded that “depictions of animal cruelty should not be added to the list.”  The decision nullified a 1999 federal law passed by Congress in an attempt to curb animal cruelty by forbidding its depiction.  That law, the Court said, sweeps too broadly.

I think that is the correct decision.  Obviously, video depictions of animal cruelty are repugnant, but the law in this case is not very well-defined.  After all, a hunting or fishing video would conceivably violate the law.  So the Court struck down the law.

The sole dissenting judge was Justice Alito, who thought that, rather than striking down the law as facially invalid, the case should go back to the lower courts to determine if Steven's videos were constitutionally protected (and leave the law in its place).

Anyway, until Congress goes back to the drawing board and writes a better law, animal cruelty videos are legal once again.