The case of the United States v. Stevens was a case that violated First Amendment rights vs. animal cruelty. There is a law, number 106-52, which prohibits the creation, sale, or possession of videos that depict cruelty to animals. The law was created to target people who were involved in the “Crush” fetish videos from years before. The videos showed women crushing small animals with their feet, which satisfied sexual fetishes for some people.
Robert J. Stevens was convicted in 2004 for taping and selling videos of people and dogs, and even farm animals, all who were engaged in vicious “dog” fighting. There are three videos, all narrated by Stevens, who made nearly $20,000 in two and a half years off of the sales.
Stevens claimed that this violated his First Amendment right to freedom of speech. In 2004 he filed a motion to dismiss the case, but was denied by the District Court and was later convicted by the jury in 2005. Stevens appealed this and was vacated by the Third Circuit.
The Third Circuit held that it did violate the First Amendment. The court held that if there is going to be a law; it should be to protect animals and to make animal cruelty illegal. However, this is a different argument at question. They are arguing that Steven’s the probibition of Steven’s depiction of animal cruelty. The court ruled that it violated the First Amendment, because it created a new category of free speech.
The Supreme Court agreed with the appellate court in April 2010. The decision, written by Chief Justice Roberts with Justice Alito, was an 8-1 decision. The Supreme Court found that it was overbroad and not valid under the First Amendment.
One of the problems the court saw in Steven’s case is that because there are 56 jurisdictions and 50 states, they would have a hard time making a law straight across all of these jurisdictions. For example, hunting is illegal in some places, like Washington D.C., so if a person were to buy a hunting magazine in Florida, and have it on him when he/she gets off an airplane in Washington D.C., he/she would be subject to arrest and prosecution under federal law. Similar issues may arise from situations like Steven’s. Even simpler, the problem could arise through e-mail. If depictions of animal cruelty are sent through e-mail to places where they are illegal, there would be problems. Anyone who depicts an animal being hurt or killed in any context would have to go through 56 different jurisdictional laws to figure out if he/she is conducting legal behavior or not. They ultimately concluded that the law was overbroad and unconstitutional.
Another way to look at the case, is that the videos that Steven’s aren’t covered by the traditional exceptions to the First Amendment. These exceptions are defamation, obscenity, and incitement to violence/ danger. The Supreme Court decided not to add cruelty depictions to that list, but they also recognized that laws against animal cruelty should be created and enforced.
"First Amendment Trumps Animal Rights – Depiction Of Animal Cruelty Constitutionally Protected." The Moderate Voice. Web. 05 Apr. 2011.
"In Animal Rights Case, Court Upholds First Amendment « The Carroll News." The Carroll News. Web. 05 Apr. 2011.