Supreme Court ruling protects free speech

WASHINGTON — Documentary filmmakers praised a Supreme Court decision issued Tuesday that strikes down a federal ban on the sale of videos depicting graphic violence against animals — arguing that had the law been allowed to stand, it would have threatened even movies like “The Cove” and “Food, Inc.”

The high court ruled 8-1 that the 12-year-old law violates the First Amendment.

Although animal rights groups argued for the law, a number of Hollywood groups and journalists orgs said it was so broad as to chill free speech.

The court threw out the criminal conviction of Robert Stevens, a Virginia filmmaker who in 2005 was sentenced to three years in prison for videos he made about pitbull fights , including one movie about the history of pit bulls that included a clip of dog fights in Japan, where such actions are legal.

A number of film organizations, including the Intl. Documentary Assn., Film Independent, the Independent Feature Project and the Independent Film and Television Alliance, filed a brief in the case arguing that the law essentially criminalizes almost any film depicting cruelty to animals.

“You take a movie like ‘Roger and Me.’ (which included footage of a woman killing a rabbit) Michael Moore would have been prosecuted,” said Michael Donaldson, who arranged for the industry orgs to be part of the amicus filings.

Donaldson said he was “very, very excited about the decision,” as it “affects documentary filmmakers’ rights across the board.

“The highest minded documentary filmmakers could have been pulled in to prosecution,” he added.

The Radio Television Digital News Assn. said that while such videos are clearly disturbing, the court’s decision makes it clear that the government lacks all-encompassing powers to ban free speech it does not deem appropriate. RTDNA said the decision will preserve the ability of news orgs to report about the wanton abuse of animals.

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., writing for the majority, rejected the government’s argument that certain categories of speech deserve constitutional protection only if their value outweighs the social cost.

“The First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech does not extend only to categories of speech that survive an ad hoc balancing of relative social costs and benefits,” Roberts wrote. “The First Amendment itself reflects a judgment by the American people that the benefits of its restrictions on the government outweigh the costs. Our Constitution forecloses any attempt to revise that judgment simply on the basis that some speech is not worth it.”

He said the law could be read to prosecute producers of films about hunting.

In a brief filed last year with the court, RTDNA and other media groups argued that banning such videos would shelter animal abusers by potentially curbing the ability of journalists to investigate and expose animal cruelty. Other groups joining in the filing included the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Society of Professional Journalists.

The court’s lone dissenter was Justice Samuel Alito Jr., who argued that the First Amendment protects freedom of speech, “but it does not protect violent criminal content, even if engaged in for expressive purposes.”

Some animal welfare groups noted that Stevens was hardly a high-minded filmmaker, arguing that it was clear enough that his movies, with titles, like “Pick-A-Winna: A Pit Bull Documentary,” were a ruse to exploit depictions of animal cruelty. The Humane Society of the United States is pressing for a law that is more narrow in scope.

While the case was brought against Stevens, adoption of the law was aimed at black market “crush” fetish videos, in which women flatten small animals with their high heels. The law did help wipe out these videos, but animal welfare groups said that they have recently resurfaced on the Internet.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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