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US court hears free-speech case of pit bull videos

By jim Published: October 6, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) — Supreme Court justices on Tuesday indicated that a federal law aimed at graphic videos of dog fights and other acts of animal cruelty goes too far in limiting U.S. free speech rights.

The court heard argument on the Obama administration's appeal to reinstate a 10-year-old law that bans the production and sale of the videos. A federal appeals court struck down the law and invalidated the conviction of Robert Stevens, who was sentenced to three years in prison for videos he made about pit bull fights.

Several justices suggested that the law is too broad and could apply, for instance, to people who make films about hunting.

"Why not do a simpler thing?" Justice Stephen Breyer asked an administration lawyer. "Ask Congress to write a statute that actually aims at the frightful things they were trying to prohibit."

But the lawyer, Deputy Solicitor General Neal Katyal, said Congress was careful to exempt hunting, educational, journalistic and other depictions from the law. Katyal urged the justices not to wipe away the law in its entirety, but to allow courts to decide on a case-by-case basis whether videos are prohibited.

When Congress passed the law and then-President Bill Clinton signed it in 1999, lawmakers were especially interested in limiting Internet sales of so-called crush videos, which appeal to a certain sexual fetish by showing women crushing to death small animals with their bare feet or high-heeled shoes.

The government said the crush videos virtually disappeared after the law took effect. Only three people have been prosecuted under the law.

Justice Samuel Alito sounded the most receptive to the government's argument. Alito wondered whether the court should focus on the potential prosecution of hunters or, citing a Breyer example, someone who produces foie gras from a goose. "Or do we look at what's happening in the real world?" he asked Stevens' lawyer, Patricia Millett.

Millett said Congress has to be very careful when restricting speech and must use a "scalpel, not a buzzsaw."

Stevens noted in court papers that his sentence was 14 months longer than professional football player Michael Vick's prison term for running a dogfighting ring.

Animal rights groups, including the Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and 26 states have joined the administration in support of the law. The government says videos showing animal cruelty should be treated like child pornography, unentitled to any constitutional protection.

Stevens says he also opposes animal cruelty, including dog fighting. But he argues that the government should not be able to jail someone for making films that are not obscene, inflammatory or untruthful. Free speech groups, the National Rifle Association, hunters' organizations and book publishers and sellers say the law threatens The U.S. Constitution's First Amendment freedoms, which guarantee free speech among other things.

The NRA and hunters' groups say the law could be used against the makers of hunting videos, although the law's main sponsor, Rep. Elton Gallegly, a Republican, has said it is not intended to apply to depictions of hunting.

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