The Supreme Court Tuesday (April 20) ruled 8 to 1 that a law
banning videos and other depictions of animal cruelty is "overbroad and
therefore invalid under the First Amendment."
While the government pledged to apply its content control
only to depictions of "extreme cruelty," the court said it "will
not uphold an unconstitutional statute merely because the government promises
to use it responsibly."
Journalism groups had joined some film producers and
publishers to urge the Supreme Court not to reinstate the 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, filed an amicus brief with the court in
advance of the arguments, arguing themselves that the law could be applied to
speech documenting cruelty, such as dog fighting.
While one First Amendment attorney polled at the time of
oral argument said he thought the case did not have wide-ranging First
Amendment implications, the Media Coalition, which includes Independent Film
& Television Alliance and Independent Filmmaker Project, though not the
Motion Picture Association of America, called it "one of the most
important free speech cases to be argued in 25 years." He says the Obama administration has created
a "unique exception to the First Amendment" and gives the government
"substantial power to decide whether certain words and images are worthy
of First Amendment protection."
The government argued that the animal cruelty depictions should join the list of categorically unprotected speech that now inluces obscenity, defamation, fraud, incitement and speech integral to crimes, and to do so via a societal balancing act.
The court said that suggestion was "startling and dangerous...The First Amendment's guarantee of free speech does not extend only to categories of speech that survive an ad hoc balanc-ing of relative social costs and benefits," said the court in an opinion delivered by Chief Justice John Roberts. "The First Amendment itself reflects a judgment by the American people that the benefits of its restrictions on the government outweigh the costs. Our Constitution forecloses any attempt to revise that judgment simply on the basis that some speech is not worth it. The Constitution is not a document "prescribing limits, and declaring that those limits may be passed at pleasure."
The case, U.S.
v. Stevens, involved Robert J. Stevens, who was sentenced to 37 months in
prison in 2004 by a Pennsylvania
federal court for selling videos of pit bulls fighting and training to hunt
boar. The decision had then been reversed by the Third Circuit court of
The only dissent was from Justice Samuel Alito, who said the
statue was not about suppressing speech but preventing "horrific acts of
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