The Supreme Court released its verdict on U.S. v. Stevens today, finding for the respondent, Robert Stevens, throwing out his 2005 conviction and permanently striking down the "Crush Act," the 1999 law under which he was convicted. The court had been weighing the merits of the case since October 2009.
The Crush Act (U.S. Code Section 48) was a 1999 federal law banning the creation, sale and possession of materials depicting animal cruelty. The law was meant to stop the creation and sale of crush videos and other depictions of illegal acts of animal cruelty "in which a living animal is intentionally maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded, or killed." Stevens, who marketed videos of dog and hog-dog fighting, was the first person convicted under the Crush Act.
With the 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court has concurred with the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which in 2008 overturned Stevens' conviction due to its interpretation of the Crush Act as an unconstitutional infringement on the free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Federal courts have long made the distinction between illegal conduct and speech about illegal conduct, which is generally protected. (The only types of speech totally beyond the protection of the First Amendment are obscenity, incitement to illegal activity, "fighting words" and child pornography.)
Moreover, the Court found the Crush Act to be substantially overbroad, arguing that its intent could be twisted for use in frivolous prosecutions—but it did not choose to decide whether a hypothetical statute limited to crush videos or other depictions of extreme animal cruelty would be constitutional. This is good news, as it opens the door for the animal protection community to propose new language for legislation that will achieve what the Crush Act was meant to do.
"Although the Crush Act was rarely used, it had the potential for aiding in the prosecution of a variety of forms of animal cruelty that are increasingly being encouraged through the dissemination of videos," says Dr. Randall Lockwood, ASPCA Senior Vice President of Forensic Sciences and Anti-Cruelty Projects. "Going forward, the ASPCA will gladly work with Congress to draft new legislation that can withstand tests of constitutionality to provide law enforcement with tools to effectively combat extreme animal abuse."
If you would like to help get such a law passed, please become a member of the ASPCA Advocacy Brigade to receive important, timely news about pending animal-related legislation in your state and in Congress.