Justices cite free speech in striking down animal-cruelty law


The Supreme Court struck down on free-speech grounds Tuesday a federal law that made it a crime to sell videos or photos of animals being illegally killed or tortured.

In a 8-1 ruling, the justices overturned the conviction of a Virginia man who sold dog-fighting videos.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., speaking for the court, said free-speech rights do not turn on whether the speech is desirable or has social value.

“The 1st 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.

All the states have laws against animal cruelty. A decade ago, Congress passed the law against depictions of animal cruelty to halt the practice of selling videos that depicted tiny animals being crushed to death. It includes exemptions for videos that have “serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical or artistic value.”

It had been rarely used, however, and came under challenge recently when prosecutors used it against the dog-fighting industry.

The decision is a setback for the animal-rights movement. The Humane Society and other groups concerned with the humane treatment of animals said the law was crucial to stopping the commercial torture of animals, including the dog-fighting industry.

This is the high court’s second controversial 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.

Only Justice Samuel A. Alito dissented from Tuesday’s decision. 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.”