The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case later this year on whether depictions of animal cruelty are protected by the First Amendment as freedom of speech.
The government wants an exception to the free-speech clause to make it a crime to sell videotapes of pit-bull dogfights and “crush” videos, a video fetish of small animals being crushed by women in high-heeled shoes.
Robert J. Stevens, 69, of Pittsville, Va., was convicted of selling three videotapes that contained footage of dogfights and was sentenced to 37 months in jail, but his conviction was reversed by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The appeals court struck down a law passed by Congress in 1999 called Section 48, which makes it a criminal offense to knowingly create, sell or possess certain depictions of animal cruelty for commercial gain. The appeals court said the law illegally restricts speech.
“Section 48 was designed to stop persons from profiting from the unlawful torture and killing of animals,” the government said in its petition to the Supreme Court.
“Congress carefully crafted Section 48 to reach only a narrow category of depictions that have no redeeming social value,” the petition said. “As enacted, the statute covers only depictions of acts of animal cruelty that are illegal, that are created, sold or possessed for commercial gain, and that lack any ‘serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical or artistic value.’ ”
The videos produced by Mr. Stevens include “scenes of savage and bloody dog fights and of pit bulls viciously attacking other animals,” according to the government’s petition.
Attorneys for Mr. Stevens say he operates a small business called Dogs of Velvet and Steel, which sells “informational materials and dog-handling equipment for pit bulls.” He is described as a published author and documentary producer who “specializes in promoting the qualities and unique characteristics of the pit bull breed of dog.”
“He does not promote illegal dogfighting and in fact, advocates in his book that ‘pit fighting should remain illegal,’ ” Mr. Steven’s petition said.
Mr. Stevens’ attorneys describe one film called “Catch Dogs and Country Living” as documenting “the use of pit bulls to help catch prey during hunting expeditions, as well as the training of dogs for such hunting purposes.”
“Throughout the film, Mr. Stevens describes the correct way to train a dog to hunt and catch prey, and shows footages of some poorly trained dogs to demonstrate improper hunting techniques,” the petition said.
However, in “Pick-A-Winna: A Pit Bull Documentary” Mr. Stevens combines footage of modern-day pit fights in Japan and fights in the U.S. dating from the 1960s and 1970s to demonstrate “what made our breed the courageous and intelligent breed that it is.”