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In animal rights case, Court upholds First Amendment

April 29th, 2010

With an 8-1 majority decision, the Supreme Court passed yet another ruling that strengthened the First Amendment right of free speech. The Court ruled on April 20 to overturn a federal law that restricts the ability of individuals to create and distribute videos featuring animal cruelty such as dog fighting. This case, combined with the Supreme Court’s January decision that banned restrictions on campaign contributions on the grounds of free speech, sets up an interesting framework as it prepares to preside over additional cases concerning the First Amendment.  For example, in the upcoming months, the Supreme Court will hear cases involving anonymous speech, the regulation of free speech in support of terrorist groups, as well as freedoms of association.

In reference to its current pronouncement, cruelty to animals in various forms, including animal fighting, is already outlawed in the United States. However, this case, centered on a 1999 law that prevents the trafficking of portrayals of cruelty to animals, addresses how this law specifically criminalizes the depiction of animal cruelty rather than the action itself. This law, passed and signed by Pres. Bill Clinton, was designed to specifically target “crush” videos in which women literally crush small animals with their bare feet or high heels.

According to Sara Schiavoni, a political science professor at John Carroll University, “While this decision may make our skin crawl because of the content of the protected ‘speech,’ it’s not all that surprising. Nor is the justification novel, evidenced by the 8-1 vote. Since the mid-1960s, the Court has resisted trying to place a societal value on the content of speech, instead valuing ‘speech’ in and of itself.”

“Once the Court decides that the act in question is ‘speech,’ they begin with the presumption that it is protected by the Constitution,” said Schiavoni. Although originally meant to respond to a sexual fetish, evidence suggests that this law has been used more to prosecute individuals distributing dog-fighting videos. As a result of the broad use of this law, the Court struck it down. This ruling is in response to Robert J. Stevens, who was sentenced to a 37-month prison term for his work as a small-time film producer. Stevens never took part in any of the instances he later accumulated and distributed, but under the 1999 federal regulation was criminally responsible for trafficking even though some of the unlawful activity occurred outside of the United States.

In support of the 1999 federal law, the government defends that these exposés fail to contribute enough to the public to warrant protection by the First Amendment. Justice Samuel Alito, the sole dissenter, argued that the decision uses a framework of theoretical instances that safeguard this form of decadent amusement. Furthermore, while Alito finds fault with comparing depictions of animal cruelty with that of hunting, as Roberts argued, he sees the similarity between “crush” videos and child pornography.

Chief Justice Roberts concluded that the government does not possess the authority to limit demonstrations of speech on the basis of its subject matter, suggestions or implications.  Despite this, Roberts acknowledges certain exceptions to speech, such as defamation and slander, which are outside the protections of the First Amendment.

Although this ruling serves as a victory for civil libertarians, those in the Humane Society have requested that Congress enact a narrower law to combat “crush” videos and depictions of unlawful animal fighting.