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 in prison.
Last year, however, 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.
Government lawyers had urged the court to hear the case. “Graphic depictions of the torture and maiming of animals (has) no place in a civilized society,” they said in a brief. But critics of the measure said it is too broad and potentially could make it illegal to broadcast scenes of hunting or bullfighting.
Arguments will be set for autumn.
In addition, the court also agreed to rule on whether prosecutors can be sued for “manufacturing and fabricating” evidence that is used to convicted a defendant.
In the past, the justices have said the prosecutors are immune from being sued for their actions in courts. But a judge in Iowa said it was a different matter if the prosecutors were involved in manufacturing evidence.
The ruling came in the case of two men who were convicted but later freed in the murder of a security guard. They then sued the two former county attorneys for presenting false evidence against them.
A federal appeals court rejected a request to throw out the suit, but the Supreme Court said Monday it will hear the prosecutor’s claim of immunity.