Stevens: 8-1 Supreme Court Decision Holds Criminal Statute Unconstitutionally Overbroad and Invalid under the First Amendment

April 22, 2010 by Kish & Lietz

This week, the Supreme Court held that 18 U.S.C. § 48, which criminalized the creation, sale, or possession of depictions of animals being harmed in illegal ways for commercial gain, is unconstitutionally overbroad. Although it had an exemption clause for portrayals with “serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical, or artistic value” the statute criminalized a significant amount of speech protected by the First Amendment.

The statute defines “depictions of animal cruelty” as including portrayals of animals being “wounded or killed,” among other actions with more cruel connotations. The Court held that, because “wound” and “kill” are not ambiguous, they may not be interpreted in light of neighboring words that imply cruelty. In addition, “depictions of animal cruelty” include any wounding or killing that is illegal where the depiction is sold or possessed, regardless of whether that action was legal where it occurred.

Thus, depictions of any animal being harmed legally could be criminalized if possessed or sold in a place where such actions were not legal. The prime example of criminalized protected speech was hunting magazines and television shows that are distributed or aired in Washington, D.C., where all hunting is illegal. It could also criminalize representations of the treatment of livestock where states have different agricultural regulations.

The legislative intent of this statute was to criminalize so-called “crush videos,” in which helpless animals are tortured and killed by women’s feet and which are enjoyed by some fetishists. The prosecution argued that prosecutorial discretion would limit the government’s use of this statute to cases of “extreme cruelty.” The Court noted, however, that when the statute was enacted, the Executive Branch announced that it would limit prosecutions to portrayals of “wanton cruelty to animals designed to appeal to a prurient interest in sex,” i.e. crush videos. In this very case, the prosecution went beyond that initial declaration of prosecutorial restraint: Mr. Stevens was prosecuted for selling videos of pit bulls in dogfights and attacking farm animals, where such conduct was allegedly legal.

We should emphasize that the Court began its discussion by acknowledging that the underlying conduct of animal cruelty was not at issue here. Cruelty to animals is still illegal. Stevens addressed only the First Amendment principles involved in the depictions of animals being harmed. According to PETA, a more narrowly-tailored statute is already in the works.

The opinion is available here.