WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court struck down a federal law Tuesday aimed at banning videos that show graphic violence against animals, saying it violates the right to free speech.
The justices, voting 8-1, threw out the criminal conviction of Robert Stevens of Pittsville, Va., who was sentenced to three years in prison for videos he made about pit bull fights.
The law was enacted in 1999 to limit Internet sales of so-called crush videos, which appeal to a certain sexual fetish by showing women crushing to death small animals with their bare feet or high-heeled shoes.
The videos virtually disappeared once the measure became law, the government argued.
But Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, said the law goes too far, suggesting that a measure limited to crush videos might be valid. Animal cruelty and dog fighting already are illegal throughout the country.
The Humane Society of the United States said it would press Congress to adopt a "narrower ban on the sale of videos showing malicious acts of cruelty."
In dissent, Justice Samuel Alito said the harm animals suffer in dogfights is enough to sustain the law.
Alito said the ruling probably will spur new crush videos because it has "the practical effect of legalizing the sale of such videos."
Animal rights groups, including the Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and 26 states joined the Obama administration in support of the law. The government sought a ruling that treated videos showing animal cruelty like child pornography, not entitled to constitutional protection.
But Roberts said the law could be read to allow the prosecution of the producers of films about hunting. And he scoffed at the administration's assurances that it would only apply the law to depictions of extreme cruelty. "But the First Amendment protects against the government," Roberts said. "We would not uphold an unconstitutional statute merely because the government promised to use it responsibly."
Stevens ran a business and website that sold videos of pit bull fights. He is among a handful of people prosecuted under the animal cruelty law. He noted in court papers that his sentence was 14 months longer than professional football player Michael Vick's prison term for running a dogfighting ring.
A federal judge rejected Stevens' First Amendment claims, but the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled in his favor.
The administration persuaded the high court to intervene, but for the second time this year, the justices struck down a federal law on free speech grounds. In January, the court invalidated parts of a 63-year-old law aimed at limiting corporate and union involvement in political campaigns.
Free speech advocates cheered Tuesday's ruling.
"Speech is protected whether it's popular or unpopular, harmful or unharmful," said David Horowitz, executive director of the Media Coalition. The group submitted a brief siding with Stevens on behalf of booksellers, documentary film makers, theater owners, writers' groups and others.