In an 8-1 decision (.pdf), the United States Supreme Court struck down recently enacted 18 U.S.C. 48 which forbids the distribution of images depicting cruelty to animals.
In United States v. Stevens, the defendant had been convicted of distributing videotapes of pit bulls attacking other animals. Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, held that the statute went too far. Its language, which among other things, bans depictions of the unlawful killing or wounding of animals, could be used to prosecute persons distributing depictions of activities such as hunting that were lawful and even encouraged where they occurred but illegal in places (like the District of Columbia) that did not permit hunting. Although the statute contained an exception for materials with “serious” educational or religious value, the exception did not adequately save the statute as a whole from overbreadth.
Justice Alito was the lone dissenter. He accepted the government’s argument that the statute reached only depictions of sadistic activity.
It is encouraging that, despite ideological difference, the Supreme Court can achieve consensus on a constitutional issue. Hopefully, Congress will learn the lessons of the Stevens opinion and craft an animal-cruelty law that is more precisely focused.