Home > Constitutional Rights, General > SCOTUS Strikes Down Law Banning Videos Depicting Animal Cruelty

SCOTUS Strikes Down Law Banning Videos Depicting Animal Cruelty

In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court yesterday struck down a federal law that criminalized the commercial creation, sale, or possession of video depictions of animal cruelty. The law defined “depiction of animal cruelty” as any video in which “a living animal is intentionally maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded, or killed, if such conduct is illegal under Federal law [or State law].” Violations of the law were punishable by up to 5 years in prison.

The law was challenged on First Amendment grounds by Robert J. Stevens, a distributor of films that depicted dog fights in Japan and the U.S. Dog fighting is prohibited in all 50 states and by federal law. Stevens sold videos of dog fights through his website and was prosecuted on three counts of violating the act. In federal district court, Stevens was found guilty and sentenced to 37 months in prison.

On appeal, the Third Circuit found the law facially unconstitutional and vacated Stevens’ conviction. The court refused to classify animal cruelty as a form of unprotected speech on par with obscenity or child pornography.

The United States argued in front of the Supreme Court that depictions of animal cruelty lack any value and should not be protected under the First Amendment. The United States contended that the Court should apply a balancing test, weighing the “value of the speech against its societal costs.”

The Court rightly noted the dangerousness of the government’s argument. Who determines the value of speech after all? Under the government’s theory, presumably the majority of Congress at any given time would be the arbiters of value. In the case of animal cruelty, the vast majority of people would likely agree that videos of animals being tortured hold little if any value.

However, the United States’ argument could be expanded to silence the expressions of any political minority if a majority of Congress decided that their speech lacked value. Of course, the courts would be a check on congressional power. However, once we wade into balancing and determinations of value, “freedom of expression” becomes a rather hollow idea. Once Congress has decided that a form of speech lacks value and should be criminally punished, who among us would feel comfortable expressing themselves when the only hope of avoiding a prison sentence rests with the courts applying a vague balancing test?

Despite the horrific nature of depictions of animal cruelty, the Court did the right thing by rejecting the government’s balancing test. Speech should not be judged for its value by temporary majorities in Congress. Rather, let the marketplace of ideas determine the value that should be accorded most forms of expression.

It’s important to note that the Court did not strike down federal laws that criminally punish acts of animal cruelty. The law that the Court struck down yesterday pertained only to depictions of animal cruelty. The Court’s opinion can be found here.

  1. Mark Berardi
    April 21, 2010 at 8:45 am

    This is the right result. As abhorrent as animal cruelty is, the Justices were able to look past that fact and see the big picture. Slowly chipping away fundamental rights is not a good solution to one single issue. Just like Chris said, an opposite ruling would open the door to squelch truly protected political speech. Great article.

  2. keithsoutham
    April 21, 2010 at 9:59 am

    The Chicago-Kent moot court members had this case as our problem last semester, and we all tended to agree that this was the proper result. But it’s also important to note that a law that specifically targeted “crush videos” would probably be permissible. “Crush videos” depict the torture/killing of small animals for sexual purposes, and these types of abhorrent videos were the specific target of Congress when the passed this law. Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Miller v. California, these videos could be termed “obscene” and thus would not have First Amendment protections. 413 U.S. 15 (1973). So, going forward, Congress could rewrite this law specifically to target such “crush videos.”

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