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SUPREME COURT
Posted on 09/09/2009 in Your Dog, Your Rights.

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Supreme Court

United States v Stevens

United States v Stevens is a federal case from the United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit that has been granted certiorari by the Supreme Court, meaning the Supreme Court will hear the case. Arguments are set to be heard on October 6, 2009. Robert Stevens was convicted by a federal grand jury under 18 U.S.C. § 48, which criminalizes creating, selling, or possessing depictions of animal cruelty. Investigators in a federal sting operation purchased 3 videos from Stevens. Two were dog fighting videos: one of footage of dog fighting in the United States, one of footage of dog fighting in Japan (which is legal in Japan). The third video, entitled “Catch Dogs” is footage of pit bulls being trained to catch and subdue wild hogs, and includes a pit bull attacking the lower jaw of a domestic farm pig. It also contains a 3 minute dog fight scene. Stevens was found guilty on 3 counts and sentenced to 37 months of imprisonment and 3 years supervised release. The original legislative intent of 18 U.S.C. § 48 was to address ‘crush videos,’ which depicted women torturing animals with bare feet or high heels. It was also stated in a House Report that the Government interest was to discourage individuals from being “desensitized to animal violence.”
It must be clarified that 18 U.S.C. § 48 does not criminalize the conduct of committing animal cruelty itself, but rather the depiction of animal cruelty, which makes it a freedom of speech issue. The argument from the government is that the type of speech regulated by 18 U.S.C. § 48 is not protected by the First Amendment and would therefore create a new class of unprotected speech. It has been 25 years since the Supreme Court last classified a certain type of speech as unprotected, which was when they deemed child pornography as unprotected speech. Other classes of unprotected speech are: fighting words, threats, and speech that imminently incites illegal activity. The common thread in all of these classes of speech is that they constitute a grave threat to human beings or appeal to a prurient interest.

The Government argued that depicting animal cruelty is analogous to child pornography, but the court disagreed. The court found that protecting an animal by infringing on one’s right to free speech does not meet the “compelling government interest” standard needed to overcome a free speech challenge. The court stated that protecting animals is not on the same level as protecting children, and further, the law should also aid in the prevention of cruelty to animals, which the court found it did not. Ultimately, the court struck down 18 U.S.C. § 48 as unconstitutional because it’s “an impermissible infringement on free speech.” However, 3 judges dissented and argued that the Government does have a compelling interest in eradicating animal cruelty. It will be interesting to see how the Supreme Court rules, and if the law is upheld, whether there will be more clarification on what qualifies as a depiction of animal cruelty.

What It Means

Animal cruelty is unacceptable, and we all have a vested interest in stopping it. The current federal law makes it a crime to possess portrayals of animal activities deemed illegal. However, should this law stand, an activity filmed in a stated where the activity is legal will be a crime to own or sell that same video in a state where the activity is illegal. Let’s use ‘catch dogs’ as an example. Suppose a video is filmed where it’s legal to use dogs to ‘catch’ hogs, but is sold in a state that has made hog catch competitions illegal. Possession of the video in the second state will be a crime. It isn’t clear from this case whether the illegal animal activity in Stevens’ video “Catch Dogs” was the footage of the dog catching hogs, or the 3 minute dog fight scene (dog fighting is illegal in all 50 states).

The current law does provide exceptions for depictions that are determined to have serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical, or artistic value. Stevens argued that his dog fighting video have historical and educational value, as he believes it educates pit bull owners on the history of the breed. He claims the ‘Catch Dogs’ video is a training video on how to properly train a dog to catch and subdue hogs, and also what not to do through footage of improper methods. Videos containing footage of dog fighting or other depictions of animal cruelty can arguably be useful in training and educating law enforcement and animal control individuals in identifying these acts.

The law does not punish any act of animal cruelty itself, but rather the materials containing animal cruelty. It punishes the individuals responsible for creating, selling, or owning the materials, not necessarily the individuals committing the act of animal cruelty. There are many comprehensive state and federal animal cruelty laws currently in place that do just that.