WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court struck down on Tuesday a U.S. law that bans videos depicting animal cruelty, ruling the measure violated constitutional free-speech rights.
The high court’s 8-1 ruling was a victory for free-speech advocates and a defeat for the federal government and for groups like the Humane Society of the United States.
Congress adopted the law in 1999 in an attempt to stop people from profiting by the interstate sale of depictions of torture and killing of animals. It was mainly aimed at “crush” videos in which women in high-heeled shoes step on small animals as a type of sexual fetish.
Opponents of the law had argued it was too broad and too vague, making illegal some videos of blood sports like bullfighting or hunting and even some documentaries. They said it should be struck down as a form of government censorship.
Writing for the court majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said the law was too broad and therefore invalid under the free-speech protections in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
While the prohibition of animal cruelty has a long history in American law, there is no evidence of a similar tradition prohibiting depictions of such cruelty, Roberts said.
Roberts refused to carve out a new category of speech unprotected by the First Amendment. The court created the last exception, involving child pornography, more than 25 years ago.
David Horowitz, executive director of a group called the Media Coalition, applauded the ruling. “If the court were to rewrite the First Amendment every time an unpopular or distasteful subject was at issue, we wouldn’t have any free speech left,” he said.
Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, urged Congress to adopt a more narrowly crafted law.
“Congress should act swiftly to make sure the First Amendment is not used as a shield for those committing barbaric acts of cruelty, and then peddling their videos on the Internet,” Pacelle said.
The court ruled for Robert Stevens of Virginia, who made and sold three videos of pit bulls fighting each other and attacking hogs and wild boars.
His 2005 conviction was the first in the country under the law. Stevens was sentenced to 37 months in prison, but he has yet to start his sentence while his case was on appeal.
Attorneys for Stevens said his sentence was 14 months longer than professional football player Michael Vick’s prison term for running a dog-fighting ring. Vick has served his sentence and has resumed his career.
Laws in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, along with various other federal laws, already ban animal cruelty.
U.S. Justice Department lawyers had argued animal cruelty videos should be treated like child pornography, not entitled to any constitutional protection. Usually, videos and other depictions are protected as free speech, even if they show abhorrent conduct.
Only Justice Samuel Alito dissented. He said the law could be validly applied to at least two broad categories of expression -- “crush” videos and dog-fighting videos.
Alito said the law was adopted to prevent horrific acts of animal cruelty, not to suppress speech. “The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, but it almost certainly does not protect violent criminal conduct,” he wrote.
The Supreme Court case is United States v. Stevens, No. 08-769.
Editing by Bill Trott