WASHINGTON, April 20 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday overturned a Virginia man's conviction under a federal law banning videos of animal cruelty, saying they were protected speech.
The 8-1 ruling, with Justice Samuel Alito dissenting, said the government lacked the power to ban expressions of animal cruelty when that is done in videotapes and other commercial media, Scotusblog reported.
While noting it previously withdrew "a few historic categories" of speech from First Amendment protection, Chief Justice John Roberts' opinion said "depictions of animal cruelty should not be added to the list."
The decision quashes a 1999 federal law that was an attempt to rein in animal cruelty by forbidding its depiction, a law the court said was overly broad.
Roberts' opinion said it wasn't curbing government's power to punish acts of animal cruelty, but the portrayals of such acts.
"Despite the government's assurance that it will apply (the law) to reach only 'extreme' cruelty, this court will not uphold an unconstitutional statute merely because the government promises to use it responsibly," the majority opinion read. "Nor can the court construe this statutory language to avoid constitutional doubt."
In United States vs. Stevens, Robert Stevens of Pittsville, Va., was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison for videos he made about pit bull fighting. Stevens claimed his video and other materials were his effort to provide historical perspective on dog fighting. A federal judge rejected Stevens' First Amendment claim, but the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the judge's opinion.
"(The) First Amendment's free speech guarantee does not extend only to categories of speech that survive an ad hoc balancing of relative social costs and benefits," Roberts wrote. "The amendment itself reflects a judgment by the American people that the benefits of its restrictions on the government outweigh the costs."
In his dissent, Alito said the court struck down a "valuable statute ... enacted not to suppress speech, but to prevent horrific acts of animal cruelty -- in particular, the creation and commercial exploitation of 'crush videos,' a form of depraved entertainment that has no social value."
Alito said the court's approach has the "practical effect of legalizing the sale of such videos and is thus likely to spur a resumption of their production."