Dog-fighting videos at heart of Supreme Court case
The court will consider a law that bans the sale or possession of photos or videos of animals being harmed or mutilating one another. Free speech and animal cruelty are issues at stake in the case.
By David G. Savage
April 20, 2009
Reporting from Washington -- The Supreme Court agreed today to take up an unusual free-speech case to decide whether the government can make it a crime to sell or own videos portraying dog fighting or other acts of animal cruelty.
All 50 states have laws against animal cruelty, and a decade ago, Congress made it illegal to sell or possess photos or videos of animals being maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded or killed. The aim was to combat an underground trade in videos that showed dogs fighting or mauling other animals.
The law included exceptions for depictions with serious religious, scientific or artistic value.
Last year, however, a federal appeals court in Philadelphia declared the rarely used law unconstitutional on 1st Amendment grounds. The judges said the protection for free speech includes depictions of even illegal activity.
There are only a few exceptions to this rule, the judges noted. One is child pornography. It is always illegal to sell or own pornography that features children. The appeals court said it was unwilling to create a new category of expression that is unprotected by the 1st Amendment.
The ruling overturned the conviction and three-year prison term of Robert J. Stevens, a Virginia man who sold several videos of pit bulls fighting and viciously attacking other animals. One gruesome scene portrayed the dogs ripping off the jaw of a pig. Stevens had advertised his pit-bull videos in Sporting Dog Journal, which the government described as an underground journal that reports on illegal dog fights.
Stevens sold the videos to federal agents in Pittsburgh in 2003, and he was prosecuted there. He was the first person convicted under the law that made it a crime to sell dog-fighting and other such videos.
Government lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court and urged the justices to revive the law. "Graphic depictions of torture and maiming of animals . . . have little or no expressive content or redeeming societal value, and Congress has compelling reasons for prohibiting them," the lawyers said in their appeal. Animal cruelty has "no place in a civilized society," and the law should punish those who profit from it, they said.
The high court voted to hear the government's appeal, which will be argued in the fall.