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Animal cruelty law is rejected

Times Staff Writer

In a setback for the animal rights movement, a U.S. appeals court Friday struck down on free-speech grounds a federal law that made it a crime to sell videos of dogfighting and other acts of animal cruelty.

All 50 states have laws against the abuse of animals, the appeals court said, but “a depiction of animal cruelty” is protected by the 1st Amendment.

The ruling overturns a Virginia man’s 2005 conviction, the nation’s first under the law. Robert J. Stevens of Pittsville, Va., advertised and sold two videos of pit bulls fighting each other and a third showing the pit bulls attacking hogs and wild boars.

He sold the videos to federal agents in Pittsburgh, and was convicted and given three years in prison.

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In Friday’s decision, the appeals court in Philadelphia, by a 10-3 vote, said it was not prepared to “recognize a new category of speech that is unprotected by the 1st Amendment.”

Acts of cruelty to animals “warrant strong legal sanctions,” the appeals court said, but it ruled unconstitutional the effort to criminalize for-profit depictions of animal cruelty.

Congress passed the law in 1999 in hopes of eradicating the trade in animal cruelty videos. Because the videos rarely showed people who could be identified, state prosecutors often could not prove where the videos were made.

The law also was designed to stop so-called crush videos. According to a congressional report cited by the court, these are “depictions of women inflicting torture [on animals] with their bare feet or while wearing high-heeled shoes.”

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The law itself spoke broadly. It called for up to five years in prison for anyone who “creates, sells or possesses a depiction of animal cruelty” for the purpose of making money. This includes the showing of a “living animal” being “maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded or killed.”

The key issue for the appeals court was whether animal cruelty could be considered as akin legally to the sexual abuse of children.

Usually, videos and photographs are protected as free speech, even if they show illegal or abhorrent conduct. But in 1982, the Supreme Court made an exception for child pornography, ruling that sexual depictions of children could be prosecuted as a crime despite the 1st Amendment. This was the only way to wipe out such abuse of children, the high court said.

Government lawyers said the animal cruelty law should be upheld on the same basis. It was needed to stop the abuse of animals for profit, they said.

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The appeals court disagreed. “Preventing cruelty to animals, although an exceedingly worthy goal, simply does not implicate interests of the same magnitude as protecting children from physical and psychological harm,” wrote Judge Brooks Smith of the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.

The three dissenters said the law should have been upheld to help in “protecting animals from wanton acts of cruelty.”

Separately, the law has been challenged in Florida by a company that broadcasts cockfights from Puerto Rico over the Internet.

The Justice Department had no reaction Friday to the ruling. Normally, however, the government appeals to the Supreme Court when a federal law is struck down as unconstitutional.

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In May, the high court repeated its view that the government has broad power to prosecute those who traffic in child pornography. The justices rejected a free-speech challenge to a stronger anti-pornography law that targets online predators. That measure makes it a crime to offer or solicit child sex images via a computer, even if no money or actual pornography is involved. The court upheld the law in a 7-2 decision.

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david.savage@latimes.com


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