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Journalists Urge Court to Overturn Law on Depictions of Animal Cruelty

Journalism groups have joined some film producers and publishers to urge the Supreme Court to strike down a federal law that makes it a crime to create, own or distribute a variety of depictions of animal cruelty.

The groups, which include the Radio-Television News Directors Association, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Reporters Committee For Freedom of the Press, have filed an amicus brief with the court, which is scheduled to hear oral argument in the case, U.S. v. Stevens, on Oct. 6.

One veteran First Amendment attorney said he did not see a big speech threat in the law. He said it would likely "live in its own little corner" of jurisprudence, where the court would deal with the underlying conduct, which is a certain type of fetish involving women stepping on small animals, rather than get into settling First Amendment precedent about violent speech.

But the journalism groups are not so sure. ""We don't take issue with the fact that the goal of preventing crush videos and other animal cruelty is certainly a worthy one," said RTNDA attorney Kathleen Kirby, "but argue that it is this very interest in protecting animals from abuse that makes speech about their treatment so valuable."

They fear the law could be applied to speech documenting cruelty, such as dog fighting, which is much in the news lately with the possible reinstatement to the NFL of former quarterback Michael Vick, who served time for dog fighting.

The Obama administration, the groups point out, have asked the court to rule that depictions of animal cruelty are unprotected speech. If the court agreed, that could lead to a congressional ban on what should be protected speech, they argue.

"RTNDA fears the law could be used in violation of the First Amendment to prevent airing of investigative or other stories on animal abuse, dog fighting, or other important issues," said that group in announcing the brief's filing.