WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that a U.S. law that makes it a crime to sell videos of animals being tortured or killed violated constitutional free-speech rights.
By an 8-1 vote, the court struck down the 1999 animal cruelty law for infringing on free-speech protections guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Congress adopted the law in an attempt to stop people from profiting by the interstate sale of depictions of torture and killing of animals. It was mainly aimed at "crush" videos in which women in high-heeled shoes step on small animals as a type of sexual fetish.
Opponents of the law had argued it was too broad and too vague, making illegal some videos of blood sports like bullfighting and even some documentaries. They said it should be struck down as a form of government censorship.
Writing for the court majority, Chief Justice John Roberts agreed that the law was substantially too broad and therefore invalid under the First Amendment.
While the prohibition of animal cruelty has a long history in American law, there is no evidence of a similar tradition prohibiting depictions of such cruelty, Roberts wrote in the 20-page opinion.
The ruling was a victory for Robert Stevens of Virginia, who made and sold three videos of pit bulls fighting each other and attacking hogs and wild boars.
His 2005 conviction was the first in the country under the law. Stevens was sentenced to 37 months in prison, but he has yet to start his sentence while his case was on appeal.
Attorneys for Stevens said his sentence was 14 months longer than professional football player Michael Vick's prison term for running a dog-fighting ring. Vick has served his sentence and has resumed his career.
Laws in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, along with various other federal laws, already ban animal cruelty.
U.S. Justice Department lawyers had argued animal cruelty videos should be treated like child pornography, not entitled to any constitutional protection. Usually, videos and other depictions are protected as free speech, even if they show abhorrent conduct.
Only Justice Samuel Alito dissented. He said the law could be validly applied to at least two broad categories of expression -- "crush" videos and dog-fighting videos.
The Supreme Court case is United States v. Stevens, No. 08-769.
(Editing by bill Trott)