Supreme Court Strikes Down Overbroad Content Law in U.S. v. Stevens

April 22, 2010

By Alex Goldman

In a ruling on Tuesday, the Supreme Court voted 8-1 to strike down a 1999 federal law that criminalizes the possession or sale of “depictions of animal cruelty,” saying that the statute is overbroad and it violates the First Amendment. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, who participated as a member of Media Coalition’s amicus group, welcomes this important ruling as an affirmation of the First Amendment’s guarantee to free speech.

According to the Supreme Court’s opinion, the existing statute “addresses only portrayals of harmful acts, not the underlying conduct.” While the law was designed specifically to address the trafficking of “crush videos,” fetish videos which involve the killing of animals by stepping on them, the court found that the statute “creates a criminal prohibition of alarming breadth.” In an attempt to “regulate the treatment of animals” by criminalizing these depictions, the law was so broadly written that it had the potential to also criminalize illustrations, articles, books and films graphically depicting subjects like hunting and bullfighting.

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund was part of an amicus brief filed with the court by The Media Coalition in July of last year in opposition to the government’s position. The brief criticized the breadth of the statute, and noted that “if the court were to agree that speech about violence can be banned in order to discourage violence – In this case, cruelty to animals – it would imperil not just a wide range of speech that engages with the violent world in which we live, but also speech concerning other conduct that may be viewed as undesirable and thus potentially subject to restriction.”

At the center of this case was a Virginia resident and dog-trainer named Robert Stevens, who was sentenced in 2004 to 37 months in prison for selling videos that featured pit bulls fighting each other and training to hunt wild boar. Most of the footage in the video came from countries that have no laws about dogfighting such as Japan, or was more than 30 years old.

The conviction was overturned in the 3rd circuit court of appeals in 2008, as the court was unwilling to create a new category of unprotected speech. The Supreme Court agreed with the 3rd circuit’s interpretation, with chief Justice Roberts writing that the Supreme Court did not have “freewheeling authority to declare new categories of speech outside the scope of the First Amendment.”

The government’s argument for upholding the law, as well as Justice Alito’s lone dissent compared such depictions to child pornography, which the court clearly stated deserves no protection under the First Amendment in the 1982 case New York v Ferber. Roberts dismissed the comparison, however, because the market for child pornography is “intrinsically related to the underlying abuse.”