WASHINGTON — In an unusual clash between free speech and an animal cruelty law, the Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide whether the government can make it a crime to sell videos of dogs fighting or animals being mauled.
The high court said it will rule on the case of Robert J. Stevens, a Virginia man who was convicted of selling videos of pit bulls fighting. He had advertised his videos in Sporting Dog Journal, which the government described as an underground publication that reports on illegal dog fights.
Stevens mailed the videos to federal agents in Pittsburgh in 2003, and he was the first person prosecuted under a new federal law against depictions of animal cruelty. His lawyers said he was devoted to training pit bulls and insisted he "does not promote illegal dog fighting." A jury convicted him, and he was sentenced to three years' prison.
Last year, a federal appeals court in Philadelphia voided his conviction and ruled the federal law unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds. The judges said that although animal cruelty is illegal, depictions of animals being cruelly treated are protected as free expression.
All 50 states have laws against animal cruelty and dog fighting. In 1999, Congress moved to combat an underground trade in videos that showed vicious dogs fighting each other and mauling helpless animals. The measure made it a crime to make, sell or own images of "animal cruelty" for the purpose of making money. It included exceptions for depictions that have serious religious, scientific, educational or artistic value.
Arguments will be set for autumn in the Stevens case.
In addition, the court agreed to rule on whether prosecutors can be sued for "manufacturing and fabricating" evidence that is used to convict a defendant.