Animal Cruelty Case Splits Roberts, Alito

I never thought I’d write these words, but Justice Alito and I have found some common ground.  His lone dissent in United States v. Stevens highlights, probably inadvertently, the problem with much of the constitutional analysis coming from The Roberts Court.  Makes you wonder where he was during the Citizens United decision and how he can possibly reconcile these two decisions.

The Court’s 8-1 ruling holds that the government lacks the power to outlaw expressions of animal cruelty when those expressions appear in videotape and other commercial media.  Like all First Amendment jurisprudence, the constitutionality of a particular form of speech is determined by the scope of the inquiry.  And it is in the scope of the inquiry where the Chief Justice and his usual stalwart Justice Alito part ways.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts argues that the Court was in no way limiting the ability of the government to outlaw acts of animal cruelty. Rather, it was concerned with the possibility of the government seeking to carve out broad categories of speech with no compelling evidence that the speech was dangerous or criminal. 

The law at issue makes it a crime, punishable with up to five years in prison, to make, sell, or possess a “depiction of animal cruelty” if any of those acts is done so for commercial gain.  It defines “animal cruelty” as a depiction where a living animal is intentionally “maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded or killed” provided that action violates a state or federal law.  The law also contains an explicit restriction for any depictions containing “serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historic, or artistic value.”  Unlike child pornography, one category of speech that receives no constitutional protection, the Chief Justice and the majority argues that there simply is not the same compelling link between depictions of animal cruelty and the perpetuation of the “crush videos” outlawed by the government. 

If you are scratching your head at this point in the constitutional analysis, you are not alone.  The law the decision struck down was written specifically in response to widespread trafficking in crush videos and the language alone is clearly modeled on the constitutional carve-out provided for speech like child-pornography. 

And much like the analysis in Citizens United, it is easy to get caught up in the intellectual free-speech ether that the Chief Justice proposes.  Of course we want broad protections for speech.  And certainly there are some kinds of videos, like the undercover reporting highlighting the grotesque nature of factory farming for example that may also be banned under this analysis.  And like we heard with the ruling in Citizens United, without the ability to freely express and exercise our First Amendment rights, the rest of our constitutional protections become meaningless.  Taken outside the realm of consequence, these arguments certainly have some appeal.

But the danger in succumbing to that appeal, as was pointed out in the Citizens United dissent, is that our law becomes divorced from practical reality, rendering meaningless any true constitutional distinctions.  Justice Alito’s dissent blasts the majority for taking an unnecessarily broad review of a statute for the sake of having some constitutional fun.  Since animal cruelty is already a crime, the proper analysis according to Justice Alito should have been for the Court to send the case back down to the Third Circuit to decide whether or not the tape in question depicted illegal acts.  If it did the free speech questions would be irrelevant since possessing tapes depicting a crime is illegal.  The majority, Justice Alito argued, was making an absurd distinction between outlawing acts of animal cruelty (which are already on the books) and possessing evidence of those acts all in the name of free expression.

But Justice Alito took it a step further by attacking the majority’s First Amendment analysis head-on.  According to Justice Alito crush videos are analogous to child pornography and therefore deserve no constitutional protection.  “The videos record the commissions of violent criminal acts, and it appears that these crimes are committed for the sole purpose of creating the videos.”  The majority, Justice Alito argues, just revived an industry that had all but been extinguished as a result of this 1999 law.  And as animal rights blogger Alicia Graef notes, the majority’s conclusion speaks more to its own values than the Constitution’s when she says “[i]n pioneering the need for free speech, it was understood that at the heart of democracy is the right for justice and human decency.”

Perhaps what the Stevens decision will come to represent is the culmination of a view of commerce above decency that can perfectly describe the Chief Justice.  His decisions make it more and more apparent that he believes principally in capitalism over democracy and views a “limited government” as one that provides for the greatest of commercial possibilities.  Of course, the danger in such a view is that it removes the moral compass of democracy, the ideal that commerce cannot always trump decency in the name of protecting commerce.


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More from Care2 on this Supreme Court decision:

photo courtesy of epicharmus via Flickr


W. C
W. C18 days ago

Thanks for caring.

William C
William C18 days ago

Thank you.

Duane B.
.4 years ago

In my opinion, this is an abuse of free speech.

Ralph D.
Ralph D.7 years ago

"... possessing tapes depicting a crime is illegal..."

For example, the Zapruder Film?

Ellinor S.
Ellinor S7 years ago

Thank you

David T.
David T7 years ago

The majority of this Supreme Court has been making decisions that are reprehensible and impossible to understand ever since that majority came into existence. I would say "unconstitutional" but, in spite of what the majority claims, the constitution is indeed "putty in the hands of the court" as on early Justice said. The Constitution is what the Court says it is, again, in spite of the claim of the most conservative members to the contrary. That does not make what they are doing one whit less reprehensible, or them less culpable for this disgrace.

Candy Adams
Candy Adams7 years ago

"Yes, I'm sorry lil Fido, some humans are barbarians."

Marcia W.
Marcia W.7 years ago

I'm going to forward this ruling to Michael Vick...Our government officials are so bizare in their logic it's scary to me. I plead with the NORMAL people to remember God's admonishment that says:

"for the love of money is the root of all EVIL"
1Timothy 6:10

Praying for Peace!

Marcia Washington
Action Miracle Ministries

murray m.
Past Member 7 years ago

Free Speech is being abused by evil people seeking money and notoriety. The use of animal videos for any kind of pornographic behavior is detrimental to all societies, causing susceptible children and adults to alter their own behaviors based on illicit video activities. Videos are being used for good reasons also, such as the videos graphically showing the cruel treatment of baby seals being skinned alive and left to die. Kittens and puppies are raised in China, held down and skinned alive, left to die by the thousands. All this cruelty to sell soft furs to elite people. These graphic videos help people take a stand against such cruelty, by showing the activity. This use of video is for the purpose of stopping cruelty, as opposed to promoting cruelty. Justice Alito is the only correct Judge in this matter. I wish the writer could be as generous to hard working, honest and legal people who immigrate to America, find jobs, start businesses, and become happy and proud families for doing so. All animals are basically helpless, but not all people are helpless. People can learn to live by rules, just as animals can be treated humanely.
There can be no justice for animals or humans without laws, and there can be no mercy without enforcing these laws equally, for all animals and humans. It is time to stop whining, name calling, and refusing to offer an analysis of the problems. It is time start taking part in solutions.

.7 years ago