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Supreme Court to hear case on dog-fighting and freedom of speech

April 20, 2009 |  5:43 pm

Meryl, a pit bull rescued from Michael Vick's dogfighting operation Does the 1st Amendment give people the right to sell or own videos depicting illegal activity?  If the activity in question is child pornography, the answer is a resounding no. 

But if it depicts animal abuse -- such as dog fighting?  That's a matter for the highest court in the land.  The Times' David G. Savage explains:

All 50 states have laws against animal cruelty, and a decade ago, Congress made it illegal to sell or possess photos or videos of animals being maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded or killed. The aim was to combat an underground trade in videos that showed dogs fighting or mauling other animals.

The law included exceptions for depictions with serious religious, scientific or artistic value.

Last year, however, a federal appeals court in Philadelphia declared the rarely used law unconstitutional on 1st Amendment grounds. The judges said the protection for free speech includes depictions of even illegal activity.

The ruling overturned the conviction of Robert J. Stevens, who was then serving a three-year sentence for selling videos of pit bulls attacking each other and other animals.  Government lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court, writing that "depictions of torture and maiming of animals ... have little or no expressive content or redeeming societal value, and Congress has compelling reasons for prohibiting them." 

Today, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, which is expected to be argued this fall.

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: Dog trainer Ann Alums works with Meryl, a pit bull rescued from Michael Vick's kennel. Credit: Molly Wald / Best Friends Animal Society.

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