The Supreme Court overturned a federal law prohibiting videos that depict graphic violence against animals, ruling it a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech. This decision is remarkable in an era of 5-4 votes for its near unanimity. In fact, conservatives will likely find themselves surprised at the dissent:
The Supreme Court struck down a federal law Tuesday aimed at banning videos depicting graphic violence against animals, saying that it violates the constitutional right to free speech.
Chief Justice John J. Roberts Jr., writing for an eight-member majority, said the law was overly broad and not allowed by the First Amendment. He rejected the government’s argument that whether certain categories of speech deserve constitutional protection depends on balancing the value of the speech against its societal costs.
“The First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech does not extend only to categories of speech that survive an ad hoc balancing of relative social costs and benefits,” Roberts wrote. “The First Amendment itself reflects a judgment by the American people that the benefits of its restrictions on the Government outweigh the costs. Our Constitution forecloses any attempt to revise that judgment simply on the basis that some speech is not worth it.”
The law was enacted in 1999 to forbid sales of so-called “crush videos,” which appeal to a certain sexual fetish by depicting the torture of animals or showing them being crushed to death by women with stiletto heels or their bare feet. But the government has not prosecuted such a case. Instead, the case before the court, United States v. Stevens, came from Robert Stevens of Pittsville, Va., who was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison for videos he made about pit bull fighting.
The lone dissent came from conservative jurist Samuel Alito, who wrote that the First Amendment doesn’t protect violent criminal conduct:
“The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, but it most certainly does not protect violent criminal conduct, even if engaged in for expressive purposes,” Alito wrote.
The problem, as QandO’s Bruce McQuain also notes, is that the act of filming is neither violent nor criminal. The actual violent act should result in prosecution for those who committed it, including the videographer if he was part of a conspiracy to commit illegal and inhumane acts against animals. The videotape would make a crucial and strong piece of evidence for trial. However, criminalizing the acts of videotaping and publishing puts other kinds of publication at risk — for instance, videos of legal hunting, among other things, or even publication of cruel acts as a means of exposing and stopping them.
However, that’s an argument that also cuts both ways. Laws against child pornography specifically target the act of photography and publication. The laws do not specify that a separate act of molestation or rape occur for prosecution — and most people would agree that it shouldn’t require such a basis. Just the act of possession can result in long jail times and a lifelong identification as a sex offender. Using the logic of this decision, wouldn’t it tend to undermine the basis for those laws as well?
Of course, the government didn’t help its case by failing to prosecute anyone under the intended purpose of the law, the purveying of “crush videos.” The law has been in existence for eleven years, apparently resulting in no trials at all. One has to wonder why Congress bothered to pass the law at all instead of just leaving the jurisdiction to the local and state authorities for cruelty to animals, except that it was obviously an attempt by Congress to create an artificial crisis just to look responsive to it.
The best part of this decision really doesn’t have anything to do with the case at hand, but in Chief Justice John Roberts’ rebuke to the executive branch:
“We would not uphold an unconstitutional statute merely because the government promised to use it responsibly.”
Perhaps Roberts wrote that with something else in mind?