In a decision sure to infuriate animal welfare organizations and anyone else concerned about animal abuse, the Supreme Court of the United States on April 20 ruled that a federal law used to convict a person of selling dog fighting videos was unconstitutional. By an 8-1 vote, the Court in United States v. Stevens held that 18 U.S.C. ¤ 48, Depiction of Animal Cruelty, was substantially overbroad and created a criminal prohibition of “alarming breadth.” The decision was written by Chief Justice Roberts; Justice Alito offered the only dissent.
The decision creates a serious dilemma. On one hand I think that animal abuse laws should be strengthened and that violators should be punished to the full extent of the law. On the other hand, as a writer, I fear any heavy-handed government attempt to restrict the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Reluctantly, I think the Court got it right.
The promise of freedom of speech is not absolute. Over the years, the Supreme Court has allowed restrictions on a very few categories of speechÑobscenity, defamation, fraud, incitement, and speech integral to a criminal enterprise. Most recently, child pornography was added to the types of speech outside the boundary of First Amendment protection. In Stevens, the government unsuccessfully tried to add depictions of animal cruelty to the list.
The problem with ¤ 48, as written, is that it seeks to regulate an entire category of speech. When the law was passed in 1999, the legislative history indicated that it was directed at so-called “crush videos,” in