October 20, 2009
ASPCA Argues Cruelty to Animals Is Not Free Speech
On Tuesday, October 6, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in U.S. v. Stevens, a landmark appeal case that will decide whether the sale of dog fighting videos is protected by the Constitutional right to free speech.
The case involves dog fighting propagandist Robert J. Stevens, who was convicted in 2005 for marketing three videos that showed genuine animal fighting. Stevens became the first person convicted under the Crush Act (or U.S. Code Section 48), a 1999 federal law banning the sale of materials depicting animal cruelty. The law was meant to stop the creation and sale of “crush” videos and other depictions of illegal animal cruelty acts, including dog fighting, “in which a living animal is intentionally maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded, or killed.”
In July 2008, a United States Court of Appeals overturned Stevens’s conviction, ruling that the Crush Act was “an unconstitutional infringement on free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.” Due to this ruling, the Crush Act is no longer in effect. Internet trafficking in crush videos, which had slowed significantly since 1999, has reportedly surgedand in April of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review U.S. v. Stevens to determine the future of the Act.
“This is only the second time in history that the Supreme Court has taken on a case directly related to animal cruelty,” says Dr. Randall Lockwood, ASPCA Senior Vice President of Anti-Cruelty Field Services. “It represents a difficult conflict between two traditionally ‘liberal’ valuesfreedom of expression and animal protectionso it is unclear how and if the court may be divided.”
While some view the now-overturned law in question as an attempt to create a new exception to the First Amendment, animal welfare groups argue in favor of protecting animals from brutal abuse for profit.
The ASPCA filed an amicus curiae (pdf) (or “friend of the court”) brief at the Supreme Court, siding with the position taken by the U.S. ASPCA representatives also attended the October 6 hearing in Washington, D.C., listening to arguments presented by both sides.
“Although the ‘Crush Act’ was rarely used, it had the potential for aiding in the prosecution of a variety of forms of animal cruelty that are increasingly being encouraged through the dissemination of videos,” says Lockwood. “If the Supreme Court upholds the repeal, the ASPCA will gladly work with Congress to draft new laws that can withstand tests of constitutionality to address these problems.”
The Court’s decision is expected in early 2010. Please watch for developments on ASPCA.org/lobby.