Transcript of oral arguments
WASHINGTON — Supreme Court justices suggested today that a federal law aimed at graphic videos of dogfights and other acts of animal cruelty goes too far in limiting free-speech rights.
The Court heard arguments in United States v. Stevens, in which the Obama administration is appealing to reinstate a 10-year-old law that bans the production and sale of the videos. A federal appeals court struck down the law and invalidated the conviction of Robert Stevens of Pittsville, Va., who was sentenced to three years in prison for videos he made about pit-bull fights.
Several justices suggested that the law was too broad and could apply, for instance, to people who make films about hunting.
"Why not do a simpler thing?" Justice Stephen Breyer asked an administration lawyer. "Ask Congress to write a statute that actually aims at the frightful things they were trying to prohibit."
But the lawyer, Deputy Solicitor General Neal Katyal, said Congress was careful to exempt hunting, educational, journalistic and other depictions from the law. Katyal urged the justices not to wipe away the law in its entirety, but to allow courts to decide case-by-case whether videos are prohibited.
When Congress passed the law and then-President Bill Clinton signed it in 1999, lawmakers were especially interested in limiting 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 Stevens case does not involve crush videos.
The government said the crush videos virtually disappeared after the law took effect. Only three people have been prosecuted under the law.
Justice Samuel Alito sounded the most receptive to the government's argument. Alito wondered whether the Court should be focusing on the potential prosecution of hunters.
"If it's the fact that during the ten years when this statute has been in effect there has been no decrease in hunting videos and hunting shows on TV, and all of the rest — the only perceptible change in the real world is that these — is that the market for crush videos dried up ... does that have any relevance?"
Stevens' lawyer, Patricia Millett, said Congress had to be very careful when restricting speech and must use a "scalpel, not a buzzsaw."
Alito also asked about a human-sacrifice channel, while Justice Anthony Kennedy chimed in with a scenario involving the airing of live pit-bull fights in movie theaters, with a $10 charge for tickets.
The questions were intended to test the limits of First Amendment freedoms — and the right of Congress to intervene — in matters that most people would find offensive.
Justice Antonin Scalia was having none of it. In the area of free speech, Scalia said, "it's not up to the government to decide what are people's worst instincts."
Scalia also pointed out that opponents of animal fighting may feel more free to use the images to express their views than proponents.
Stevens noted in court papers that his sentence was 14 months longer than football player Michael Vick's prison term for running a dogfighting ring.
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 have joined the administration in support of the law. The government says videos showing animal cruelty should be treated like child pornography, unentitled to any constitutional protection.
Stevens says he also opposes animal cruelty, including dogfighting. But he argues that the government should not be able to jail someone for making films that are not obscene, inflammatory or untruthful. Free-speech groups, the National Rifle Association, hunters' organizations and book publishers and sellers say the law threatens First Amendment freedoms.
The NRA and hunters' groups say the law could be used against the makers of hunting videos, although the law's main sponsor, Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., has said it is not intended to apply to depictions of hunting.
A decision is expected by the spring.