SCOTUS rules in U.S. v. Stevens that law banning “crush porn” is unconstitutional infringement on free speech.

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From the NYT:

The Supreme Court, with only one dissenting vote, on Tuesday struck down a federal ban on videos that show graphic violence against animals. The ruling cheered free speech advocates, but it raised concerns that more animals will be harmed.

The justices threw out the criminal conviction of Robert Stevens of Pittsville, Va., who was sentenced to three years in prison for videos he made about pit bull fights.

The law was enacted in 1999 to limit Internet sales of so-called crush videos, which appeal to a certain sexual fetish by showing women crushing to death small animals with their bare feet or high-heeled shoes.

The videos virtually disappeared once the measure became law, the government argued. The Bush administration used the law for the first time when it indicted Stevens in 2004.

All 50 states have laws against animal cruelty, but the federal statute targeted the videos because it has been difficult to prosecute people who take part in violence against animals with a camera rolling, but not showing their faces.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, said the law goes too far. He suggested that a measure limited to crush videos might be valid.

A lawmaker said he was moving immediately on Roberts’ suggestion. Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., said he is introducing legislation as early as Tuesday that would focus narrowly on crush videos. He said the bill would have bipartisan support and noted that the 1999 law passed both houses of Congress overwhelmingly and quickly worked.

”There aren’t too many thing you pass around here that actually work as well as this has,” Gallegly said.

In dissent, Justice Samuel Alito, a dog owner himself, said the harm animals suffer in dogfights is enough to sustain the law. Alito’s dog, Zeus, a springer spaniel, is sometimes seen around the court being walked by Alito’s wife, Martha-Ann.

Alito also said the ruling probably will spur new crush videos because it has ”the practical effect of legalizing the sale of such videos.” …

Read the full SCOTUS opinion here. From the syllabus:

(a) Depictions of animal cruelty are not, as a class, categorically unprotected by the First Amendment. Because §48 explicitly regulates expression based on content, it is “‘presumptively invalid,’ . . . and the Government bears the burden to rebut that presumption.”United States v. Playboy Entertainment Group, Inc., 529 U. S. 803, 817. Since its enactment, the First Amendment has permitted restrictions on a few historic categories of speech:including obscenity, defamation, fraud, incitement, and speech integral to criminal conduct:that”have never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem,”Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U. S. 568, 572. Depictions of animal cruelty should not be added to that list. While the prohibition of animal cruelty has a long history in American law, there is no evidence of a similar tradition prohibiting depictions of such cruelty. The Government’s proposed test would broadly balance the value of the speech against its societal costs to determine whether the First Amendment even applies. But the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee does not extend only to categories of speech that survive an ad hoc balancing of relative social costs and benefits. The Amendment itself reflects a judgment by the American people that the benefits of its restrictions on the Government out-weigh the costs. New York v. Ferber, 458 U. S. 747, distinguished.

Previously blogged about here and here.

–Ann Bartow

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