Dogfight Videos Are Protected by First Amendment Says Supreme Court

Suzanne Murray
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pitbull
Flickr photo by Photos8.com
It's a sad day for animal rights groups. The Supreme Court just struck down a federal law designed to stop the sale and marketing of dogfight videos and videos showing other acts of animal cruelty.

The court, in an 8-1 decision, ruled that the law was an unconstitutional violation of free speech.

The case before the court involved Robert Stevens who sold videos through his business Dogs of Velvet and Steel. He was charged with violating interstate commerce laws by selling depictions of animal cruelty and later sentenced to 37 months in prison.

Stevens, a documentary filmmaker, argued for the right to sell videos depicting dogfighting to educate the public about pit bulls. Hunters and other groups rallied to his side.

In the majority opinion, Justice John Roberts wrote, "Jurisdictions permit and encourage hunting, and there is an enormous national market for hunting-related depictions in which a living animal is intentionally killed. An otherwise-lawful image of any of these practices, if sold or possessed for commercial gain within a state that happens to forbid the practice, falls within the prohibition of [the federal law]."

Justice Samuel Alito was the only dissenter in the case. He focused on "crush" videos, in which women are shown stomping animals (such as rabbits) to death with spiked-heel shoes or with their bare feet. Alito wrote, "The Court strikes down in its entirety a valuable statue that was enacted not to suppress speech, but to prevent horrific acts of animal cruelty."

Stevens is pleased with the outcome of the case. His attorney Patricia Millett said, "Acts of animal cruelty are abhorrent and rightly condemned. Laws banning such conduct remain fully protected, as they should. But we cannot forget how critical the free flow of information is to educating the public about the problems of animal cruelty and the need for legislative and prosecutorial action to combat it."

The Humane Society argued that Steven's lawyers were trying to mislead people. Jonathan Lovvorn, the group's lawyer, said that even though Stevens claims he was against dogfighting, his efforts to depict images of it and sell them across county lines contributed to animal cruelty.

"The law at issue doesn't cover anything that has any journalistic, educational, artistic, or social value," he says. "When you strip away all the hysteria and rhetoric, this is a narrow law that only applies to those trafficking obscene materials over state lines."

In his opinion, Justice Roberts acknowledged that the First Amendment has "permitted restrictions upon the content of speech in a few limited areas" such as obscenity, defamation, and fraud, but that depictions of animal cruelty shouldn't be added to the list.

The last time the Supreme Court carved out an exception to First Amendment free speech protection was in 1982 when it banned the distribution of child pornography.

What's your view of videos -- paintings, photos -- that depict animal cruelty?

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