WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court today struck down a federal law aimed at banning videos that show graphic violence against animals, saying it violates the right to free speech.
The justices, voting 8-1 in U.S. v. Stevens, 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. The Bush administration used the law for the first time when it indicted Stevens in 2004.
All 50 states have laws against animal cruelty, but the federal statute targeted the videos because it has been difficult to prosecute people who take part in violence against animals with a camera rolling, but who do not show their faces.
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.
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." Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., is looking at whether there is a way "to protect animal rights, which really is the main focus, without infringing on free speech," Blumenauer spokeswoman Erin Allweiss said.
In dissent, Justice Samuel Alito said the harm animals suffer in dogfights is enough to sustain the law.
Alito said the ruling probably would spur new crush videos because it had "the practical effect of legalizing the sale of such videos."
Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle said hundreds of crush videos appeared on the Internet after a federal appeals court ruled in Stevens' favor in 2008. "This Court ruling is going to accelerate that trend. That's why it's critical that the Congress take action," he said.
Other animal rights groups, including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and 26 states also joined the Obama administration in support of the law. The government sought a ruling that treated videos showing animal cruelty like child pornography — that is, 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."
Free-speech advocates cheered today'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 filmmakers, theater owners, writers groups and others.
Stevens ran a business and Web site 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 in Citizens United v. FEC, the Court invalidated parts of a 63-year-old law aimed at limiting corporate and union involvement in political campaigns.