Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Animal Cruelty: United States v. Stevens

United States v. Stevens
Kelsey McDowell

In 1999, Congress enacted the Section 48 law concerning the depiction of animal cruelty. Section 48 is a federal criminal statute that prohibits any “visual or auditory depiction in which a living animal is intentionally maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded, or killed.” It was originally established to eliminate the production of “crush” videos, which display the torture or killing of animals and are said to appeal to a sexual fetish. These videos usually feature women in high heels crushing small animals such as kittens and mice.
The case United States v. Stevens, 559 U.S. ____ (2010) first came about in 2004 when Robert J. Stevens of Pittsville, VA was indicted for creating and selling three videotapes showing pit bulls fighting. Stevens argued that the law against the production of animal cruelty video was too broad and it violated his First Amendment rights. The law’s definition was so broad that it could include depictions of hurting animals in publications such as hunting magazines.
Stevens appealed his conviction and the case went to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals where it was decided that the law violated the First Amendment and that Steven’s conviction should be eliminated. The court said that the law could not survive strict scrutiny because it was not narrowly tailored to preventing animal cruelty and it lacked a compelling government interest.
In October of 2009, the Obama administration requested that the Supreme Court overturn the Third Circuit Court’s ruling. The final decision was made on April 20, 2010, when in an 8-1 decision written by Chief Justice Roberts, the Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court ruling. The Court found that the law concerning animal cruelty was overbroad and therefore invalid. The Court also declined to recognize animal cruelty as a new category of unprotected speech. Some of the Court, however, hopes to see this change in the future. The Court argued that “depictions of animal cruelty,” should be added to the list of unprotected speech because it “lacks expressive value.”
In terms of free speech in the future, the decision of the United States v. Stevens case expanded the public’s free speech. People are now allowed to publish videos and images dealing with animal cruelty where they were not allowed to prior to this case. The decision was considered a victory for filmmakers and free speech advocates.
One of the problems that came about because of the law being revoked is that animal abuse can publish videos and images without any consequences. Even though the actions of animal cruelty, such as dog fighting, are not legal, the production of video now is. Justice Samuel was the lone dissenter. Alito was against the law being repealed because of the pain the animals were going through. He stated that, “Our society has long banned such cruelty.”
On April 21, 2010, one day after the Court’s decision, Representative Elton Gallegly introduced a new and more specific bill concerning crush videos into Congress. President Barack Obama signed the bill and made it into a law that day. The new law “prohibits the creation, sale, and distribution of crush videos.” The punishment for breaking this law can be up to seven years in prison. It will be interesting to see if the new regulation faces any new legal challenges.

1. Barnes, Robert. "Supreme Court Overturns Anti-animal Cruelty Law in First Amendment Case." The Washington Post: National, World & D.C. Area News and Headlines - Washingtonpost.com. The Washington Post, 21 Apr. 2010. Web. 15 Mar. 2011. .

2. Glynn, Amelia. "Obama Signs Animal Crush Video Act into Law : Tails Of The City." San Francisco Bay Area — News, Sports, Business, Entertainment, Classifieds: SFGate. San Francisco Chronicle, 10 Dec. 2010. Web. 12 Apr. 2011. .

3. Rosenbaum, Debbie. "JOLT Digest » United States v. Stevens | Harvard Journal of Law & Technology." Harvard Journal of Law & Technology :: Home. Jolt Digest, 23 Apr. 2010. Web. 12 Apr. 2011. .

4. Chen, Joanna, and Mian Wang. "United States v. Stevens (08-769) | LII / Legal Information Institute." LII | LII / Legal Information Institute. Cornell University Law School, 6 Oct. 2009. Web. 12 Apr. 2011.


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