Animal-rights groups and free-speech advocates squared off in a major First Amendment battle Tuesday, as the U.S. Supreme Court prepared to decide whether videos of illegal dogfights are protected speech.
In oral arguments, the Obama administration asked the justices to reinstate the Federal Depiction of Animal Cruelty statute. The 10-year-old law prohibits the sale of videos and other depictions of animal cruelty in jurisdictions where the activities shown are illegal unless they have "serious value."
But Virginia filmmaker Robert Stevens argued in court filings that the law is too broad and violates his constitutional right to free speech. In 2005, Stevens was convicted of producing violent videos of dogfights and sentenced to 37 months in prison, but a federal appeals court found the law unconstitutional and overturned his conviction.
At issue in U.S. v. Stevens is whether animal cruelty should be categorized as expression so reprehensible that it does not deserve First Amendment protection. That hasn't been done since the court's landmark 1982 ruling on child pornography.
During arguments Tuesday, several of the justices indicated that they may agree with Stevens.
"Why not do a simpler thing?" Justice Stephen Breyer asked a lawyer for the government. "Ask Congress to write a statute that actually aims at the frightful things they were trying to prohibit."
Stevens' lawyer, Patricia Millet, said Congress must be careful when restricting an individual's right to free speech, noting lawmakers should use "a scalpel, not a buzz saw."
Representing the government, Deputy Solicitor General Neal Katyal said Congress was careful to exempt hunting, educational, journalistic and other depictions from the law. Katyal urged the court not to wipe away the legislation in its entirety, but to allow courts to decide on a case-by-case basis whether videos are prohibited.
Justice Samuel Alito asked whether the court should focus on the potential prosecution of hunters, "or do we look at what's happening in the real world?"
Congress passed the law in 1999 with an eye toward limiting Internet sales of "crush videos," which show women crushing small animals with their bare feet or while wearing high-heeled shoes, according to Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-CA), who sponsored the anti-cruelty legislation.
"Other crimes often go hand in hand with animal fighting, including illegal gambling, drug trafficking and acts of human violence," Gallegly said in a statement on his Web site. "Virtually every arrest for animal cruelty has also led to additional arrests for at least one of these criminal activities. Moreover, gratuitous cruelty toward animals dehumanizes all of us and is simply wrong."
The case has generated a large amount of interest, in part because of the dogfighting conviction of pro football player Michael Vick in 2007. Vick served nearly two years for running an interstate dogfighting ring from his home in Virginia and was released in May.
Stevens, a pit bull enthusiast, has said he opposes animal cruelty. In court documents, he maintained he did not stage the dogfights and that the videos were intended to be instructional guides for pit bull owners.
He has garnered support from major news organizations and free-speech advocates, who argued that the law could discourage efforts to investigate such activities as seal clubbing or animal testing in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries if video or photographic images are obtained.
"Images of bullfighting in Spain, historical footage of cockfighting in Louisiana and documentaries about clubbing seals in Canada all could be prosecuted under the statute," the American Civil Liberties Union stated in a court brief supporting Stephens.
But animal-rights advocates and law enforcement agencies around the country argued that removing the profit motive from "blood sports" is a valuable tool for law enforcement authorities.
"The importance of the law in stopping animal cruelty cannot be overstated," said Sgt. David Hunt of the Franklin County (Ohio) Sheriff's Department. "It's a powerful tool to go after those who profit from illegal animal cruelty and promote criminal behavior."
From NPR staff and wire reports