WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court struck down a federal law Tuesday aimed at banning videos depicting graphic violence against animals, saying it violates the constitutional right to free speech.
Chief Justice John Roberts, 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 that whether certain categories of speech deserve constitutional protection depends on balancing the value of the speech against its societal costs.
"The First Amendment's guarantee of free speech does not extend only to categories of speech that survive an ad hoc balancing of relative social costs and benefits," Roberts wrote. "The First Amendment itself reflects a judgment by the American people that the benefits of its restrictions on the Government outweigh the costs. Our Constitution forecloses any attempt to revise that judgment simply on the basis that some speech is not worth it."
The law was enacted in 1999 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 with stiletto heels or their bare feet. But the government has not prosecuted such a case. Instead, the case before the court, United States v. Stevens, came from Robert Stevens of Pittsville, Va., who was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison 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 rather than granted constitutional protection.
But Roberts said the federal law was so broadly written that it could include all depictions of killing animals, even hunting videos. He 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 was the lone dissenter.