Supreme Court overturns law banning depictions of animal cruelty
In a majority of eight-to-one, the court ruled that the law is too broad and therefore invalid under the First Amendment
By Helen Stoilas. Web only
Published online: 20 April 2010
The US Supreme court has struck down a 1999 federal law banning videos that depict animal cruelty, ruling that it violates constitutional rights to free speech. The case involved Robert Stevens, a Virginia man who sold videos of fighting pit bull terriers. He was the first person to be prosecuted under the new law in 2004, and was sentenced to 37 months in prison.
Among the groups opposing the law were US museums, artists and academics, including the College Art Association, which claimed it could criminalise the sale of art or images showing hunting scenes, and work by contemporary artists such as Adel Abdessemed, whose film of livestock slaughter in rural Mexico has met with protests from animal protectionists. The law's proponents argue that it rightly reduces sales of animal cruelty videos, which they say cause severe harm to animals and dehumanise participants.
Writing for the majority of the court, Chief Justice John J. Roberts Jr, said the law is “substantially overbroad, and therefore invalid under the First Amendment”. Furthermore, Justice Roberts wrote that, despite the government’s assurance that it would apply the law only to “extreme” depictions of animal cruelty, “this Court will not uphold an unconstitutional statute merely because the Government promises to use it responsibly”.
Justice Samuel Alito was the lone dissenter, writing: “The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, but it most certainly does not protect violent criminal conduct, even if engaged in for expressive purposes”.
In reaction to the decision, Andrew Tauber, a lawyer at Mayer Brown LLP who represented the National Coalition Against Censorship and the College Art Association in a "friend of the court" brief contesting the law, said: “Today’s decision in Stevens is a strongly worded reaffirmation of long-standing First Amendment principles. The Supreme Court rightly rejected the government’s position as ‘startling and dangerous’. In striking down Section 48 as unconstitutional, the Court has eliminated a continuing threat to free speech that would have chilled artistic and other forms of expression”.
The Humane Society of the United States, which also submitted a “friend of the court" brief supporting the law, issued a statement saying it was disappointed at the ruling but expressed “optimism that Congress will be allowed to draft a more narrowly crafted statute to crack down on the sale of videos showing illegal acts of animal cruelty”.
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