Depictions of Cruelty

Posted by Matthew Liebman, ALDF Staff Attorney on May 12, 2009

For the first time in more than fifteen years, the United States Supreme Court will directly address the issue of animal cruelty, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund will file a brief in defense of the animals’ interests.

On April 20, the Supreme Court granted the request of the United States Department of Justice to review United States v. Stevens, a case involving the sale of dogfighting videos. The last time the Court directly addressed animal cruelty was in the 1993 case Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, in which the Court struck down a poorly-drafted municipal ordinance targeting religious sacrifice of animals. The question before the Court in Stevens is whether 18 U.S.C. § 48 (“Section 48″), a federal law that criminalizes the sale of depictions of animal cruelty, violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. ALDF, an expert on animal cruelty laws, will submit an amicus curiae brief urging the Court to uphold the law and recognize that the prevention of cruelty to animals is a compelling government interest.

The defendant in the case is Robert Stevens, who was convicted in January 2005 of violating Section 48 by selling three videos depicting dogfights and hog-dogging, including graphic depictions of a pit bull mutilating the lower jaw of a live pig. Not only did Stevens sell the videos, he also narrated them, produced them, and advertised them in dogfighting magazines. Stevens appealed his conviction to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. In a 10-3 decision, the Third Circuit held that Section 48 violated the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. The court declined the government’s request to establish a new class of speech–depictions of animal cruelty–that is “unprotected” by the First Amendment. To date, there are only a handful of “unprotected” types of speech: slander/libel, incitement, obscenity, fighting words, true threats, and child pornography.

Although ALDF is not a party to the Stevens case, we will submit an amicus curiae, or “friend of the court” brief in the case. An amicus curiae brief permits a non-party to offer its view of a case, typically premised on either its interest in the outcome or its expertise in the field. ALDF’s brief, which we will file in mid-June, will encourage the Court to recognize the protection of animals as a compelling government interest and uphold Section 48. The Supreme Court will hold oral argument in the case this fall.


12 thoughts on “Depictions of Cruelty

  1. There are dog fighting magazines? REALLY? OMG!!!

  2. Matthew Liebman says:

    Hi Linda,
    Yes, sadly there are quite a few out there. There are also several cockfighting magazines. Thanks for your interest in this story. We will continue to post updates on the Stevens case as it develops.

  3. Kimberly Williams says:

    Thanks for keeping us informed. I work in a law firm and can only dream of working for a firm that tackles animal cruelty cases! Thanks for all your hard work!

  4. Andreya Grozik says:

    This has NOTHING to do with free speech. This has everything to do with blatant animal cruelty. Child pornography is illegal, so of course magazines depicting it are illegal. Dog fighting is illegal, and any material depicting such should be illegal as well. It’s simple.

    I would hope and assume that our Supreme Court would recognize this.

    Robert Stevens, you are SICK.

  5. Priscilla says:

    I sincerely hope action is brought severely against this “man” – as an owner of an APBT and someone intolerable of BSL, it disgusts me that these videos were ever made; let alone shown. The reputation of these animals is already so contrived to fit the media’s perceptions of what sells, videos depicting their so called “viciousness” (because of not just a lack of responsibility, but an utter lack of morality on a humans part) is just another tool to be used against them. This is no where near freedom of speech, it is an insult to the First Amendment to even suggest such a thing.

    Thank you bringing it to the public’s attention, I am definitely interested in hearing how this plays out.

  6. Russell says:

    What Matthew Liebman has intentionally left out of this article is the fact that one, hog hunting with pit bulls is LEGAL, and two, ALL of mr. Stevens dog fighting videos were filmed overseas, mainly in Japan, where dog fighting is LEGAL! What does everyone think about this case now?

  7. Hi Russell,

    Thanks for your feedback.

    In fact, hog-dog fighting is illegal in many states, including Pennsylvania, where Mr. Stevens was convicted. See 18 PA. CONS. STAT. ANN. § 5511(h)(1).

    Second, you are incorrect that all of the dog-fighting in Mr. Stevens’ videos occurred overseas. As the Third Circuit’s opinion clearly states, although some of the footage is from Japan, the tapes also featured “footage of organized dog fights that occurred in the United States.” United States v. Stevens, 533 F.3d 218, 221 (3d Cir. 2008).

    And it is legally and morally irrelevant whether the cruelty was legal where it occurred. The question under Section 48 is whether the cruelty is illegal at the location where the depiction is created, sold, or possessed. Because dog-fighting and hog-dog fighting are illegal in Pennsylvania, Mr. Stevens’ tapes fit within the statute.

  8. Russell says:

    You know very well that hog dogging and dog fighting were legal when Mr. Stevens videos were filmed, regardless of what silly laws have since been passed. You should make that type of information known to your readers, but you choose not to. Destroying these types of media, no matter how cruel, is akin to a 1940’s era Nazi book burning.

  9. Alisha says:

    Why is this even an issue? Cruelty is cruelty. To profit from deliberately inflicting suffering of another being is immoral. Period.

  10. Cassie Linders says:

    Are there any updates on this case yet? I’m writing a law journal comment regarding animals rights, specifically the U.S. v. Stevens case.

  11. Ruby Varvil says:

    I am a senior in high school who is doing a project over the topic Animal Rights/ Animal Cruelty. I found this all very saddening, but if anyone knows any other information on this case or any other cases I would love to use them in my project. Over 300 people will see my presentation, so I want to be able to get the most important issues out.

  12. Russell says:

    In an landslide 8-1 decision, the US Supreme court struck down this anti free speech law, and deemed it unconstitutional. Stevens and anyone else for that matter, can now legally possess all the dogfighting videos they like. It is a great day for freedom and America, as an embarassing blow has been dealt to the animal rights loons.