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Free speech vs. animal cruelty videos in high-court case

  • Story Highlights
  • Supreme Court accepts case dealing with profiting from recording pit bull fights
  • Court had thrown out conviction of man who sold "Dogs of Velvet and Steel" tapes
  • Government had argued "compelling interest" in stopping "crush" videos and the like
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By Bill Mears
CNN Supreme Court Producer
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court agreed Monday to review whether a federal law outlawing the sale of graphic videos of animal cruelty amounts to a violation of free-speech rights.

The Supreme Court will hear a case on dogfighting, which usually involves pit bulls, shelter statistics say.

The Supreme Court will hear a case on dogfighting, which usually involves pit bulls, shelter statistics say.

The justices accepted the Justice Department appeal of a case dealing with a tape showing pit bull dogs attacking other animals and one another in staged confrontations.

A federal appeals court had thrown out the conviction of Robert Stevens, a Virginia man who sold videos through his "Dogs of Velvet and Steel" business. According to court records, undercover federal agents found he was advertising his tapes in "Sporting Dog Journal," an underground magazine on illegal dogfighting.

Among the products Stevens advertised was "Catch Dogs," featuring pit bulls chasing wild boars on organized hunts and a "gruesome depiction of a pit bull attacking the lower jaw of a domestic farm pig," according to the Philadelphia-based appeals court.

Stevens was charged in 2004 with violating interstate commerce laws by selling depictions of animal cruelty. He was later sentenced to 37 months in prison, and promptly appealed.

It was the first prosecution in the United States to proceed to trial under the decade-old law.

The divided appeals court concluded that when it came to the federal law in question, "research and empirical evidence in the record before us simply does not support the notion that banning depictions of animal cruelty is a necessary or even particularly effective means of prosecuting underlying acts of animal cruelty." The court noted many state and local jurisdictions have their own laws banning mistreatment of wild and domesticated animals.

The government had argued a "compelling interest" in stopping people who would profit from dog attack tapes and similar depictions. Growing in popularity are what are called "crush" videos, in which women, with their faces unseen, are shown stomping helpless animals such as rabbits to death with spiked-heel shoes or with their bare feet.

The case, U.S. v. Stevens, will be argued in the fall.

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