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April 20, 2009

U.S. Supreme Court to Review Animal Cruelty Law

Will hear appeal of ruling

The Humane Society of the United States

  • Bog Stevens was prosecuted for selling dogfighting videos. iStockphoto

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court granted the U.S. Solicitor General's petition asking the high court to review a controversial appellate court decision that struck down a key federal anti-cruelty law as unconstitutional. The Humane Society of the United States hailed the decision.

The statute at issue—sponsored by Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif.—banned the commercial sale of videos depicting extreme and illegal acts of animal cruelty, and was prompted by an HSUS investigation that uncovered an underground subculture of "animal crush" videos.

In crush videos, women, often in high-heeled shoes, impale and crush to death puppies, kittens and other small animals, catering to those with a fetish for this aberrant behavior. The law halted the proliferation of animal crushing operations.

The law has also been used to crack down on commercial dogfighting operations, in which the animals often fight to the death for the amusement of viewers.

Despicable Acts

"The federal Depiction of Animal Cruelty Law is an essential complement to state anti-cruelty and animal fighting laws, which alone do not equip law enforcement with the tools needed to stamp out this horrific form of extreme animal cruelty," said Wayne Pacelle, president & CEO of The Humane Society of the United States. "We wouldn't allow the sale of videos of actual child abuse or murder staged for the express purpose of selling videos of such criminal acts, and the same legal principles apply to despicable acts of animal cruelty."

The Solicitor General filed a petition for certiorari last fall, requesting review of the Third Circuit's ruling that the depictions at issue are "protected speech" and that preventing animal cruelty is "not a compelling state interest."

The HSUS filed a friend of the court brief in support of the petition emphasizing that videos of animals being tortured are not protected speech, and preventing animal cruelty is a compelling state interest—not only because our society values animals and their well-being, but also because people who perpetrate these acts of cruelty are often involved in other criminal behavior, including violence against people.

Valueless Cruelty

Before the law was enacted in 1999, there were some 2,000 crush videos available in the marketplace, selling for $15 to $300 each. Over the last decade, that market all but disappeared. However, since last July, crush videos have proliferated on the Internet in response to the appellate court's ruling. 

The statute includes an exemption for any materials of "serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical or artistic value."

The HSUS is represented in the case pro bono by the Washington, D.C. office of Latham & Watkins and lawyers in the HSUS' Animal Protection Litigation section.

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