The Supreme Court by an 8-1 vote Tuesday struck down a federal law that makes it a crime to sell videos and other depictions of animal cruelty, saying the law infringed on free speech rights.
"We read (the law) to create a criminal prohibition of alarming breadth," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority, noting that nowhere in the disputed law was there a requirement that the depicted conduct actually be "cruel."
The text of the law, used to prosecute a Virginia man who had advertised videos of dogfights in an underground magazine, sweepingly covered "any depiction" in which "a living animal is intentionally maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded, or killed."
Yet as the justices struck down that prohibition, they specifically said they were not deciding the validity of a law that would target only so-called "crush videos," which typically show women's high heels digging into kittens and other small animals and which had inspired Congress to write the 1999 law in the first place.
Robert Stevens, who had run a business known as "Dogs of Velvet and Steel," appealed his conviction under the law, saying it violated his First Amendment speech rights. He also contended he was trying to provide educational and historical materials about the pit bull breed, not promoting illegal dogfighting.