High Court To Rule on Whether "Animal Cruelty" Is Exempt From 1st Amendment

July 1, 2009

The Supreme Court has taken up a case that may make it illegal for journalists to cover animal cruelty cases like the Michael Vicks dogfighting prosecution — or even to shoot investigative video of out-of-season fishing.

Here is the beginning of a story by Rory Eastburg of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press:

"The Supreme Court will decide next term whether the First Amendment applies to recordings and pictures that depict animal cruelty.

But the implications of the case go well beyond the issue of animal cruelty. The Court may also revisit two fundamental issues of First Amendment law — how easily the government may categorically ban entire categories of speech, and when a law may be struck down as 'overbroad' because it has a chilling effect on protected speech.

The case, which is currently being briefed, could mark the first time in more than 25 years that the Court finds a category of speech unprotected by the First Amendment.

The case, U.S. v. Stevens, concerns a federal law that punishes with up to five years in prison anyone who 'knowingly creates, sells, or possesses a depiction of animal cruelty with the intention of placing that depiction in interstate or foreign commerce for commercial gain.' The law contains an exception for 'serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical, or artistic value,' though the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia (3rd Cir.) found that the law is written broadly enough to prohibit even some videos of bullfighting or out-of-season fishing."