US Supreme Court to rule on animal cruelty law

Mon Apr 20, 2009 4:44pm BST

* US top court to rule on federal animal cruelty law

* Law, aimed at videos, said to violate free-speech rights

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON, April 20 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court said on Monday that it would decide whether a federal law that makes it a crime to sell videos of animals being tortured or killed violates constitutional free-speech rights.

The high court agreed to hear a U.S. Justice Department appeal defending the 1999 animal cruelty law after it was struck down for infringing free-speech protections.

A U.S. appeals court declared the law unconstitutional and overturned the conviction of a Virginia man, Robert Stevens, who sold three videos of pit bulls fighting each other and attacking hogs and wild boars.

His conviction in 2005 was the first in the country under the law. Stevens had been sentenced to 37 months in prison.

By a 10-3 vote, the appeals court rejected the government's argument that, for the first time in more than 25 years, there was a new category of speech not covered by constitutional free-speech protections. Usually, videos and other depictions are protected as free speech, even if they show abhorrent conduct.

In 1982, the Supreme Court last made an exception and ruled that free-speech rights do not apply to certain sexual depictions of children.

Congress adopted the law in 1999 in an attempt to stop people from profiting by the interstate sale of depictions of unlawful torture and killing of animals.

Laws in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, along with various other federal laws, already prohibit animal cruelty.

Justice Department attorneys said Congress, in adopting the law, also is aimed at videos in which women in high-heeled shoes crush small animals as a type of sexual fetish, sought to stop a unique and reprehensible type of criminal conduct.

They told the Supreme Court that the animal cruelty law should be upheld just like child pornography laws. The justices are expected to hear arguments in the case and then rule during their upcoming term that begins in October.

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