The US Supreme Court has struck down a federal law banning videos depicting cruelty to animals, saying the law was “overbroad” and violated the First Amendment.
The ruling brings to an end an 11-year-old law designed to stop the production of “crush” videos — footage of people extracting sexual pleasure from slowly crushing animals to death. While many commentators on Tuesday hailed this as a victory for free speech, some worried that the ruling would open the door to the commercialization of animal cruelty.
The justices voted eight to one to strike down the law, with only the usually conservative Justice Samuel Alito dissenting.
In the case before the Supreme Court, a Virginia man had been convicted under the law for selling videotapes of dog fights. According to ABC News, Robert Stevens had been given a 37-month sentence for “knowingly selling depictions of animal cruelty, with the intention of placing them in interstate commerce.”
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court said that applying the law to Stevens’ case showed the law was too broad. In his ruling (PDF), Chief Justice John Roberts said the law is “invalid under the First Amendment.”
“The First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech does not extend only to categories of speech that survive an ad hoc balancing of relative social costs and benefits. The First Amendment itself reflects a judgment by the American people that the benefits of its restrictions on the government outweigh the costs. Our Constitution forecloses any attempt to revise that judgment simply on the basis that some speech is not worth it.”
According to Law.com, the ruling means the justices saw the law as being so broad as to be almost arbitrary. “It could criminalize, for example, hunting videos in the District of Columbia where hunting is illegal,” the Web site posited.
While some commentators hailed the ruling as a “victory for free speech,” the Associated Press reports that animal-rights groups are upset at the outcome:
Animal rights groups, including the Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and 26 states joined the Obama administration in support of the law. The government sought a ruling that treated videos showing animal cruelty like child pornography, not entitled to constitutional protection.
In his dissent, Justice Alito expressed concern that the ruling would mean a spike in the production of animal cruelty videos.
“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,” he wrote.
“The last time the Supreme Court addressed the issue was in 1982 when it carved out an exception to the First Amendment on the issue of child pornography,” ABC News reported.
AP notes, “For the second time this year, the justices struck down a federal law on free speech grounds. In January, the court invalidated parts of a 63-year-old law aimed at limiting corporate and union involvement in political campaigns.”