US Supreme Court overturns ban on videos depicting animal cruelty

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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The US Supreme Court yesterday overturned an eleven-year-old law banning videos that depicted animal cruelty, ruling that such a law violated free speech rights under the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

The court's 8-1 ruling overturns a law enacted in 1999 that banned the trade of "depictions of animal cruelty," including "conduct in which a living animal is intentionally maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded or killed." The case was prompted by the prosecution of Robert J. Stevens, who had filmed and sold videos of dogfights, and subsequently was sentenced in 2005 to 37 months in prison, although he has yet to begin his sentence; his case has remained on appeal.

According to Chief Justice John Roberts Jr, the law overturned by the court had been "a criminal prohibition of alarming breadth." The law had been defended by the US government, which had argued that videos of cruelty to animals had no value, and should therefore receive no protection by the First Amendment. Roberts argued the point in his written statement on the ruling, saying that "The First Amendment means that government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter or its content." According to Roberts, the law had been too broad, and the court was therefore unwilling to place it outside the protection of the First Amendment.

Reactions to the ruling were mixed. A group called the Media Coalition supported the ruling, saying that "If the court were to rewrite the First Amendment every time an unpopular or distasteful subject was at issue, we wouldn't have any free speech left." The US Humane Society called for a new law to be written by Congress, this one more narrow in scope. The society's president, Wayne Pacelle, said that "Congress should act swiftly to make sure the First Amendment is not used as a shield for those committing barbaric acts of cruelty, and then peddling their videos on the Internet."


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