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United States v. Stevens

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Brief Fact Summary.

The respondent ran a dog business and an associated website, through which he sold videos of pit bulls fighting other dogs and attacking other animals. The respondent moved to dismiss the indictment claiming that the statute is facially invalid under the First Amendment. The District Court denied the motion and sentenced him to imprisonment after the jury convicted him. The Third Circuit, however, vacated the respondent’s conviction.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content under the First Amendment.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

The overbreadth claimant bears the burden of demonstrating, from the text of the law and from actual fact, that substantial overbreadth exists.

View Full Point of Law
Facts.

Congress enacted a statute, which establishes criminal penalty for those who knowingly “creates, sells, or possesses a depiction of animal cruelty” if done “for commercial gain.” The statute defines animal cruelty in which a living animal is intentionally disabled, tortured or killed. The law exempts any depiction that has scientific, educational or artistic value. Congress passed this law to restrict “crush videos” that feature the intentional torture and killing of animals and depict obscene scenes vividly. The respondent was indicted because he was running a business that sold videos of dogs fighting and attacking other animals.

Issue.

Does the statute that prohibit the commercial creation, sale, or possession of depictions of animal cruelty violate the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment?

Held.

Yes, the First Amendment prohibits government from restricting expression because of its message, ideas, subject matter, or content. The statute at issue explicitly regulates expression based on content as it restricts “visual and auditory depictions” such as videos, sounds, and pictures.

Dissent.

Justice Alito

The statute does not apply to depictions of hunting because it only targets depictions of animal cruelty. The statute applies to two broad real-world categories of expression: crush videos and dog fighting videos. Thus, the statute has constitutionally permissible application and should be held valid. Even if the majority would disagree, hunting depictions should fall within the exception because they have serious scientific, educational or historical value, a view shared by Congress.

Discussion.

The Government’s argument that we should rely on a balancing test and measure the value of the speech against its societal costs is dangerous. The First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech does not extend only to categories of speech of which its value is greater than the costs. The First Amendment’s guarantee itself reflects the American people’s judgment that the benefits of restrictions on government outweighs its costs.

Moreover, the scope of the statute is too broad. The application of the statute to depictions of illegal conduct extends to conduct that is illegal in only a single jurisdiction. This would lead to a result where a depiction of lawful conduct in one State violates the statute if that depiction later finds its way into another State where the same conduct is unlawful. While there may be a broad societal consensus against cruelty to animals, there may be disagreement on what types of conduct are cruel among different States. Because the statute here is overly broad, it is invalid under the First Amendment.


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