Animal Cruelty At Odds with Free Speech
The U.S. Supreme Court is planning on revisiting a unique case that pits distribution of animal cruelty videos against freedom of speech. (ZT Pet News Photo Illustration)
NEW YORK -- The U.S. Supreme Court announced on Monday that it is willing to revisit a case involving animal cruelty and freedom of speech.
The issue at hand is whether it is a crime to sell or own videos displaying acts of animal cruelty, or whether the content -- and the distribution of it -- is protected by the First Amendment.
In 1999, Congress made it illegal to possess photos or videos of animals being tortured and/or killed; the 3rd U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals in Philadelphia deemed that ruling unconstitutional last year, citing the protection of free speech.
The subject at hand was Robert Stevens, a Virginia man who sold three videos of Pit Bulls fighting each other and other animals.
According to The Associated Press, the appeals court described one video as "a gruesome depiction of a Pit Bull attacking the lower jaw of a domestic farm pig."
Stevens has advertised his videos in Sporting Dog Journal, a reportedly underground publication that reports on illegal dog fights. He also sold the videos to federal agents in 2003, and was subsequently arrested. In 2005, Stevens became the first person to be convicted under the law that makes it a crime to sell dog- or other animal-fighting videos.
The Philadelphia courts declared that ruling unconstitutional, saying that the protection of free speech includes depictions of even illegal, and sometimes gruesome, acts.
Government lawyers then appealed to the Supreme Court, reportedly arguing, "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," according to The Los Angeles Times.
Animal cruelty, the lawyers also said, has "no place in a civilized society," and those who engage in it, or profit from it, should be prosecuted.
The Supreme Court voted to hear the government's appeal, which will be argued in October in the U.S. v. Stevens case.
The law has been tempered with one exception -- child pornography -- in the past. In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled that free-speech rights do not apply to certain sexual depictions of child. Come fall, abused animals might join those ranks, as well.
The Associated Press, Reuters and The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.
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