United States v. Stevens

United States v. Stevens

United States v. Stevens
Argued October 6, 2009
Decided April 20, 2010
Full case name United States v. Robert J. Stevens
Docket nos. 08-769
Prior history Motion to dismiss denied, No. 2:04-cr-00051-ANB (W.D. Pa. Nov. 10, 2004); defendant convicted; vacated, 533 F.3d 218 (3d Cir. 2008); cert. granted, 556 U.S. ___, 130 S.Ct. 1577 (2010)
Depictions of animal cruelty are not, as a class, categorically unprotected by the First Amendment.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Roberts, joined by Stevens, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor
Dissent Alito
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. I; 18 U.S.C. § 48

United States v. Stevens, 559 U.S. 460, 130 S.Ct. 1577 (2010) was an April 20, 2010 decision by the Supreme Court of the United States, which ruled that the version of 18 U.S.C. § 48 which had entered into effect on December 9, 1999 as Pub.L. 106–152 was an unconstitutional abridgment of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

After this ruling, the statute was revised by the Animal Crush Video Prohibition Act of 2010 to have much more specific language indicating it was intended only to apply to "crush videos."

Background of the case

Robert J. Stevens, an author and small-time film producer who presented himself as an authority on pit bulls, compiled and sold videotapes showing dogfights. Though he did not participate in the dogfights, he received a 37-month sentence under a 1999 federal law that banned trafficking in “depictions of animal cruelty.” [1]

District Court proceedings

Public Law No: 106-152 was a federal criminal statute that prohibited the knowing creation, sale, or possession of depictions of cruelty to animals with the intention of placing the depiction in interstate or foreign commerce for commercial gain. The law had been enacted in 1999, primarily to target "crush videos", which depicted people crushing small animals to gratify a sexual fetish. It excluded from prosecution "any depiction that has serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical, or artistic value;" this language tracked the "Miller test" the U.S. Supreme Court used to determine whether speech could be prosecuted for obscenity or was protected by the First Amendment.

In 2004, Robert J. Stevens was indicted under 18 U.S.C. § 48 for creating and selling three video tapes, two of which depicted pit bulls engaged in dog fighting. The third tape depicted a pit bull attacking a domestic pig as part of the dog being trained to catch and kill wild hogs; this video included "a gruesome depiction of a pit bull attacking the lower jaw of a domestic farm pig."[2] Although Stevens' criminal prosecution concerned only three tapes, he had made $20,000 in two and a half years from selling nearly 700 videos.[3] Stevens was not accused of engaging in animal cruelty himself, nor of shooting the original footage from which the videos were created. However, the footage in each of the videos "is accompanied by introductions, narration and commentary by Stevens, as well as accompanying literature of which Stevens is the author."[4]

Stevens filed a motion to dismiss the indictment, arguing that the federal statute abridged his right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment. The District Court denied his motion in November 2004.[4] In January 2005, Stevens was convicted by a jury after a deliberation of 45 minutes.[5]

Third Circuit decision

Stevens appealed, and the Third Circuit vacated his conviction, holding that 18 U.S.C. 48 violated the First Amendment. The court stated that dog fighting, or the use of dogs to hunt hogs, may be made illegal to protect animals from cruelty. However the court ruled that the law in question, prohibiting the depiction of animal cruelty, violates the First Amendment, as it would create a new category of speech not protected by the free speech provision of the Amendment.[2]

Review by the Supreme Court

The government appealed, asking that the Supreme Court overturn the appellate court ruling.[6] On April 20, 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the lower court's decision.[7] Oral arguments in the case were heard on October 6, 2009.[8]

Stevens' attorney, Washington, D.C. lawyer Patricia Millett, has written:

In June 2009 the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed a brief in defense of the animals’ interests. The brief encouraged the Court to recognize the protection of animals as a compelling government interest and uphold Section 48.[10]

More than a dozen media outlets joined an amicus brief in support of Stevens, including The New York Times, National Public Radio, the American Society of News Editors, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, Citizen Media Law Project, MediaNews Group, the National Press Photographers Association, the Newspaper Association of America, the Newspaper GuildCWA, Outdoor Writers Association of America, the Radio-Television News Directors Association, the Society of Environmental Journalists, and the Society of Professional Journalists.[11]

The court's decision

On April 20, 2010, the Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court ruling in an 8-1 decision written by Chief Justice Roberts, with Justice Alito dissenting.[12] The Court found that Section 48 was substantially overbroad, and therefore invalid under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Alito's dissent

Justice Alito dissented, explaining "(t)he most relevant of our prior decisions is Ferber, 458 U. S. 747, which concerned child pornography. The Court there held that child pornography is not protected speech, and I believe that Ferber’s reasoning dictates a similar conclusion here."[13]

Subsequent developments

On April 21, one day after the Supreme Court struck down the law, its original sponsor, Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Ca.) introduced a new bill with much more specific language indicating it was intended only to apply to "crush videos."[14] President Barack Obama signed the bill into law on December 9, 2010.[15]

See also


  1. ^ Liptak, Adam (April 20, 2010). "Supreme Court Rejects Ban on Animal Cruelty Videos". The New York Times. 
  2. ^ a b United States v. StevensOpinion of the Third Judicial Circuit on
  3. ^ in Support of PetitionerAmicus CuriaeBrief of the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law as
  4. ^ a b Robert J. Stevens Appeal to the Third Circuit Court
  5. ^ Ward, Paula Reed. "Animal Cruelty Case Pushed to Top Court", Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 17, 2008
  6. ^ Petition for Writ of Certiorari
  7. ^ "Supreme Court Grants Review in Animal Cruelty/First Amendment Case", Daily Writ, April 20, 2009
  8. ^ Liptak, Adam. "Court Hears Free-Speech Case on Dogfight Videos", New York Times, October 6, 2009
  9. ^ Richey, Warren. "Supreme Court to decide case on animal cruelty and free speech", Christian Science Monitor. October 5, 2009
  10. ^ of Animal Legal Defense Fund in Support of PetitionerAmicus CuriaeBrief
  11. ^ of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and Thirteen News Media Organizations in Support of RespondentAmicus CuriaeBrief
  12. ^ Certeriorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. [1]
  13. ^ United States v. Stevens, Docket No. 08-769, Alito dissent, pg 13.
  14. ^ Local congressman introduces new bill to stop the sale of animal cruelty videos
  15. ^ Robson, Ruthann (2010-12-14) Animal Porn - Criminalized by Federal Law Again, Constitutional Law Prof Blog


  • Text of the Decision
  • Orbach, Barak; Woolston, Allison. "Censoring Crimes", Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal (2011)
  • Schwartz, Matt; Steffans, Ben. "Lex Appeal: Analysis of the US v. Stevens ruling". Lex Appeal, July 31, 2010.
  • Hanna, Cheryl; Vesilind, Pamela A. (2009), : Animal Law, Obscenity, and the Limits of Government Censorship"United States v. Stevens"Preview of , Charleston Law Review 4 (1): 59–89 .
  • Eastburg, Rory. "Justices Hostile to Ban on Animal Cruelty Images", Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, October 6, 2009
  • Weiss, Debra Cassens. "Supreme Court to Weigh Law Barring Videos of Animal Cruelty", ABA Journal, April 20, 2009
  • Savage, David G. "Supreme Court to weigh depictions of animal cruelty", Los Angeles Times. September 23, 2009.
  • Liptak, Adam. "Free Speech Battle Arises From Dog Fighting Videos", New York Times. September 18, 2009
  • Green, Craig. "Distinguishing Bad Pictures from Bad Acts". Philadelphia Inquirer. October 9, 2009

External links

  • Public Law 106-152, United States Government Printing Office.
  • Public Law 111-294, United States Government Printing Office.