Supreme Court strikes down animal cruelty video ban

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Tuesday ruled [opinion, PDF] 8-1 in United States v. Stevens [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that a federal law [18 USC § 48 text] banning depictions of animal cruelty violates the First Amendment [text]. The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held [opinion, PDF] that the law illegally restricts speech, overturning the conviction of Robert Stevens, who was prosecuted for selling videos depicting dog fights. In upholding the opinion below, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court that the statute is, "substantially overbroad, and therefore invalid under the First Amendment." Justice Samuel Alito filed a dissenting opinion. Instead of applying the doctrine of overbreadth, Alito, "would vacate the decision below and instruct the Court of Appeals on remand to decide whether the videos that respondent sold are constitutionally protected."

The statute establishes a criminal penalty of up to five years in prison for anyone who knowingly "creates, sells, or possesses a depiction of animal cruelty," if done "for commercial gain" in interstate or foreign commerce. It was originally intended to ban "crush videos," which feature small animals being tortured and killed. Stevens was charged under the statute for selling videos of dog fights. Dogfighting is illegal in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

 

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