WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court struck down a federal law yesterday aimed at banning videos depicting graphic violence against animals, saying that it violates the constitutional right to free speech.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for an eight-member majority, said the law was overly broad and not allowed by the First Amendment. He rejected the government's argument for certain categories of speech deserving constitutional protection, depending on the value of the speech versus societal costs.
"The First Amendment itself reflects a judgment by the American people that the benefits of its restrictions on the Government outweigh the costs," Roberts wrote. "Our Constitution forecloses any attempt to revise that judgment simply on the basis that some speech is not worth it."
The 1999 law was intended to forbid sales of so-called crush videos, which appeal to a certain sexual fetish by depicting the torture of animals or showing them being crushed to death by women in heels or their bare feet. But the government has not prosecuted such a case. The high court was weighing in on Robert Stevens of Pittsville, Va., who was sentenced to 3 years for videos he made about pit bull fighting.
Animal rights groups and 26 states had joined the Obama administration in support of the 1999 law. They argued that videos showing animal cruelty should be treated like child pornography, not be granted constitutional protection.
But Roberts said the court was not passing judgment about whether "a statute limited to crush videos or other depictions of extreme animal cruelty would be constitutional."
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. was the lone dissenter. "The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, but it most certainly does not protect violent criminal conduct, even if engaged in for expressive purposes," he wrote.