October 6, 2009 / 5:44 PM / 10 years ago

U.S. justices question animal cruelty video law

* Law, aimed at videos, said to violate free-speech rights

* Sentence longer than what football star Michael Vick got

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON, Oct 6 (Reuters) - A U.S. law that makes it a crime to sell videos of animals being tortured or killed may be too broad as it possibly covers documentary films and depictions of hunting or bullfights, Supreme Court justices said on Tuesday.

A majority of the nine-member high court seemed sympathetic to the argument that the 1999 animal cruelty law infringed on free-speech protections guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Congress adopted the law in an attempt to stop people from profiting by the interstate sale of depictions of torture and killing of animals. It mainly was aimed at videos in which women in high-heeled shoes crush small animals as a type of sexual fetish.

Opponents of the law argued that its reach was too wide, making videos of blood sports and even documentaries illegal.

Justice Antonin Scalia said the court needed to consider “the right of people who like cockfighting, who like dogfighting and who like bullfighting to present their side of the debate.”

The case involved the conviction of a Virginia man, Robert Stevens, who made and sold three videos of pit bulls fighting each other and attacking hogs and wild boars.

His conviction in 2005 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 is on appeal.

Attorneys for Stevens said his sentence was 14 months longer than professional football player Michael Vick’s prison term for running a dogfighting ring.

Laws in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, along with various other federal laws, already ban animal cruelty.

Justice Stephen Breyer cited a long list of activities, including bullfights, deer and fox hunting and the slaughter of animals, that people might want to video. “They won’t know whether they can make this particular film or depiction,” he said.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said a documentary film on pit bulls contained worse scenes than those in the videos made by Stevens.

Chief Justice John Roberts asked whether the law might apply to videos with a political message, such as those by animal rights activists depicting animal cruelty.

Attorney Patricia Millett, arguing for Stevens, said the ban on such videos should be struck down as a form of government censorship. “Congress has a job to write with a scalpel and not a buzzsaw in the First Amendment area,” she said.

Deputy Solicitor General Neal Katyal defended the law. He said videos showing animal cruelty 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. A ruling is expected early next year. (Editing by Eric Beech)

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