Speech rights clash with cruelty law

By McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. Published: April 21, 2009
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WASHINGTON — In an unusual clash between free speech rights and an animal cruelty law, Supreme Court justices 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 Stevens, a Virginia man who was convicted of selling videos of pit bull terriers 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.” But 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 while animal cruelty is illegal, depictions of animals being cruelly treated are protected as free expression.

Government lawyers had urged the Supreme Court to hear the case.

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Other decisions

On Monday, the Supreme Court:


• Said it will rule on an effort by prosecutors in Iowa to end a civil rights lawsuit against them by two men whose convictions for killing a retired police officer were set aside.


• Stepped into a dispute over how to determine when the Constitution’s guarantee of a speedy criminal trial has been violated.


• Refused an appeal from an inmate in Texas over jurors’ consultation of a Bible in the course of their deliberations on his sentence.


• Heard arguments in an Arizona case over ongoing federal court supervision of the state’s programs for English learners.

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