Supreme Court nullifies law against animal cruelty videos

Dealing a setback to the animal rights movement, the Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down on free-speech grounds an anti-cruelty law that made it a federal crime to sell videos or photos of animals being illegally wounded, killed or tortured.

It marked the second time this year that the high court wielded the First Amendment to toss out a law with popular support.

The 8-1 ruling overturned the conviction of a Virginia man who sold several dog-fighting videos to federal agents.

All states have laws against animal cruelty, but a decade ago Congress adopted the measure to stop Internet trafficking of videos that showed tiny animals being tortured and crushed. Lawmakers said hunting would be unaffected because it is legal. Moreover, the ban on animal cruelty photos included an exemption for those that had “serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical or artistic value.”

Nonetheless, the law was challenged as unconstitutional by prominent media groups, which said it threatened freedom of speech. The case arose when Robert Stevens, a promoter of pit bulls, was indicted and convicted for selling videos on his website that showed the dogs fighting each other or killing wild boar.

Government lawyers had defended the anti-cruelty law on the grounds that photos of animals being tortured, like pornography involving children, should be outside the protection of the First Amendment because the speech has little value and comes at a high cost to society.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., speaking for the court, rejected as “startling and dangerous” the notion that the First Amendment protects only speech that is desirable or has social value. “The First Amendment itself reflects a judgment by the American people that the benefits of its restrictions on the government outweigh the costs,” Roberts said.

He also said the law was too broad and could allow for prosecutions for selling photos of out-of-season hunting, for example.

Though enacted a decade ago, the law against animal cruelty videos had been used rarely. It came under challenge recently when federal prosecutors turned it against the underground industry of dog-fighting.

After Stevens was convicted of selling the dog-fighting videos, he appealed and argued the law was unconstitutional.

He won a preliminary ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia last year, and the high court agreed Tuesday the law must be voided. “We do not decide,” Roberts said, “whether a statute limited to crush videos or other depictions of extreme animal cruelty would be unconstitutional,” he wrote in U.S. vs. Stevens.

Only Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented. He faulted the court for striking down “in its entirety a valuable statute that was enacted not to suppress speech, but to prevent horrific acts of animal cruelty -- and in particular, the creation and commercial exploitation of ‘crush videos,’ a form of depraved entertainment that has no social value.”

The Humane Society of the United States called the decision a disappointment, but its officials said they were heartened that the court left the door open for a new law that was more targeted at “crush videos” and dog-fighting.

Wayne Pacelle, the group’s president, said the law could be written to apply only to “cruel” killing or wounding of animals for entertainment purposes. “Our attorneys are confident that we can narrowly tailor a new measure that would withstand constitutional scrutiny,” he said.

This is the high court’s second notable free-speech ruling this year. In January, the court struck down the laws that prohibited corporations from spending money on election races. In that 5-4 decision, the court said restrictions on corporate political spending amounted to restrictions on free speech.