U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Law Banning Depictions of Animal Cruelty

Posted by Matthew Liebman, ALDF Staff Attorney on April 20, 2010

The United States Supreme Court today issued its decision in the case of United States v. Stevens, a constitutional challenge to 18 U.S.C. § 48 (“Section 48”), the federal law that criminalized the sale of depictions of animal cruelty. The Animal Legal Defense Fund, an expert on animal cruelty laws, submitted 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.

Unfortunately, by a vote of 8 to 1, the Court held that the law violates the free speech clause of the First Amendment and is therefore unenforceable. The decision throws out the criminal conviction of Robert Stevens, who was sentenced to prison for making and selling videos of dogfights.

Justice Samuel Alito, the lone dissenting vote, said the harm animals suffer in dogfights is enough to sustain the law, and that the ruling will probably spur new “crush” videos, because it has “the practical effect of legalizing the sale of such videos.” Crush videos depict women in high heels crushing small animals to death for the sake of gratifying a sexual fetish.

ALDF’s attorneys are analyzing the decision carefully to evaluate how to respond to the overturning of Section 48. We will provide a more detailed summary of the opinion on the ALDF blog in the coming days.

Because the Supreme Court is the country’s highest court, it has the final say on the law’s constitutionality, and no further appeals are possible. However, the Court’s opinion leaves open the possibility of introducing to Congress a new, narrower law "limited to crush videos or other depictions of extreme animal cruelty." We will let our members know as soon as possible how they can help. In the meantime, please visit ALDF’s Action Alerts page to see how you can fight cruelty now.

Not sure what the Court’s decision means for animals? Read "Clarifying the Supreme Court’s United States v. Stevens Opinion."

17 thoughts on “U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Law Banning Depictions of Animal Cruelty

  1. Brandy says:

    well that’s a bunch of bs because if you are making the videos of dog fights then you are obviously involved with the whole thing. So, if you can make the video you are just as guilty of the whole thing and should be punished for animal crulity. This world is just crappy for animals.

  2. RenaRF says:

    I read both the opinion and the dissent pretty carefully. It’s almost as if the majority upheld 1st amendment protections because the original law was deemed too vague and might preclude depictions that are (although reprehensible) otherwise legal in nature – for example, videos on hunting.

    It seems to me that a door was left open for a NEW law that is NOT vague in its intent or its instruction that videos that either depict OR explicitly document instances of criminal animal cruelty are, in fact, illegal themselves. I hope that animal rights groups are carefully lobbying Congress to immediately pass a law that fixes the flaw that the SCOTUS seems to have found and eliminates videos of criminal dog fighting, criminal crush videos, and other illegal acts of animal cruelty.

  3. DN says:

    I just don’t understand the decision. If someone were merely talking about or writing about animal torture, then I would kind of understand. I fear that many innocent animals will become victims in new snuff torture videos. A sad day.

  4. Kim says:

    I thought animal cruelty was illegal. Is child pornography legal? Is child pornography considered free-speech?!

  5. Rebecca Littman says:

    I agree…I think we all need to “carefully” read the rhetoric on both sides..I am totally against animal or human abuse of any kind…but we need to see where the law lands and not be reactionary to it before we understand how to beat the clauses that allow despicable behavior to continue. Read my friends and be educated in what you are fighting for or against. Let’s win this in a manner that will make us all feel our cause has been heard and rectified in the legal system…Yes, my friends, the legal system here is not exactly what I would like it to be…But extremism, will only damage the cause…

    Long live us all that care and the animals we care about! <3

  6. Georgette Madak says:

    Is this in large part because animals are still deemed property? I know people are saying the old law was too vague; yet I can’t imagine conservatives tolerating an abundance of newly detailed laws. So discouraging to many.

  7. Kathinka says:

    Would the decision be similar if children were involved? It works both ways, those who promote violence against animals will also likely be violoent to children, so this decision is abominable, because it will inspire vmore violencve aghainst animals and children! A total shame…

  8. Pepe says:

    Kathinka…. ABORTION Videos are child Pornography but it isn’t prosecuted it is worshiped .. That is what Abotionist Tiller Did he gave a Video of the late term Abortion to the Mother for a remembrance…

  9. j quaid says:

    it`s time for these old justices to retire. they are senile! to allow animal cruelty is horrible!!!!!!!!!! it is clear they are not thinking straight, we need a cap on age and how many years the serve

  10. ALDF’s Joyce Tischler discussed the U.S. v. Stevens decision on KQED’s Forum. Listen to it here: http://www.kqed.org/epArchive/R201004210900

  11. Rena says:

    I posted a comment here shortly after the SCOTUS decision came down – I want to follow-up a bit on this, and I hope someone from ALDF is reading this.

    I understand why this decision came down the way it did. When the SCOTUS referred to the language as too vague such that it might restrict legal free speech in the future, it was referring – in part – the fact that animal cruelty laws differ from state to state. So, the Federal law prohibiting these types of videos might violate the law in one state where it is completely in line with the law in another state.

    The only good news to come out of this decision, as i see it, is an opportunity to combine with other animal rights organizations(HSUS, Peta, ASPCA) to urge Congress to take up a NATIONAL law that defines and prohibits criminal animal abuse. Another commenter referenced child pornography and the prohibition of those types of tapes – the reason they can do that is because there is Federal law prohibiting child pornography, so banning such depictions doesn’t vary by state.

    We should work together on this with other like-minded organizations and push for a FEDERAL animal cruelty statute and then a follow-on law that bans now Federally-prohibited activities.

  12. Charlotte Stanton says:

    We have to just keep fighting the good fight.
    This makes no sense to me at all.
    This is nothing but a snuf film!
    I won’t ever give up, and I hope you guys don’t either!

    Charlotte Stanton

  13. RenaRF says:

    Two things for you fine animal lovers.

    One – please read the ASPCA’s article on the SCOTUS ruling. While they are disappointed as are we, they are planning proactively to lobby Congress to establish a Federal statute on animal cruelty and to re-take the issue of a law banning these videos:


    Second – WRITE YOUR CONGRESSPEOPLE. You can use this link:


    To get all the contact information needed to write your Congresspeople. Push for a Federal statute against animal cruelty and tell them that you want illegal acts of animal cruelty banned from videos!

  14. Charlie Lammers says:

    This Supreme Court decision is absurd. Anyone caught posessing, selling or creating videos depicting mistreatment of animals should be treated the same as if the videos were child pornography. One writer suggested that the justices were too old and senile. I don’t think that has anything to do with the issue. Most of the justices on the Supreme Court are really not all that old. Roberts isn’t elderly, neither is Thomas. Ginsburg is getting up there. Stevens, who just retired is probably older than the remaining ones, but I wish he were staying because I believe most of his decisions were right. Moreover, I don’t think he would have voted in favor of overturning the Crush Act.

  15. RonJeremy says:

    The dogfighting videos were filmed in Japan, where it is legal, therefore there was never any crime committed so stop saying that, it is false. Stevens believes that dogfighting is not cruel, and he is entitled to use his videos to try to prove that. This is what free speech is about. He never had any crush videos, which should be banned as they are disgusting. Highly, highly, rare no matter what HSUS says, but nevertheless disgusting.

  16. Stefani says:

    I believe that videos of animal cruelty should be placed in the same kind of special category as that reserved for child pornography. As Alito noted, the “cruelty” appears to have been arranged, and perpetrated, specifically for the purpose of creating a video of it, selling and profiting from the video. Just as in child porn, in which the videographer is not an innocent bystander (there is of course no such thing) but rather usually involved in the ring acquiring the children and arranging the whole scene, for the purpose of selling the videos for profit, the same is true of “crush” videos.

    I am horribly disappointed by the ruling.

    There is an excellent editorial on this in Sunday’s Washington Post (April 25) by Kathleen Parker.

    So, there are a bunch of sickos out there celebrating this decision by procuring kittens . . . . let it be on all their heads. As if they care!

  17. As lawyer I must declare my preoccupation by the transmission of violent images without no control which foments a cruelty culture that amenza to the children, children and adolescents against I mistreat psychological of this type of images, which attempts against its rights shaped in declarations and international conventions to which it is due to go to obtain some restriction, because beyond a freedom of expression, this one it cannot either be harmful or to hurt the suceptibilidad of the people, which in constitutional subjects denominates consideration of rights. In Ecuador we have obtained the restriction of this type of images by the well-being of all the children of the country, even though companies have been against it.

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