SIGNIFICANCE: UNITED STATES V. STEVENS

Case NameUnited States v. Stevens
Citation: 130 S.Ct. 1577 (2010)
TopicsObscenity; Regulations of Online Speech

Robert J. Stevens ran a business and website where he sold videos of pitbulls engaged in dog fights and dogs hunting farm animals, including a gruesome video that showed a pitbull attacking a pig.  He also included footage of dog fights in Japan, where the practice is allegedly legal, and dogfights in the United States from the 1960s and 1970s.  Stevens was charged with violating 18 U.S.C. §48, which criminalizes the creation, sale, and possession of depictions of animal cruelty.

The jury in the District Court in Pennsylvania convicted Stevens on all counts and sentenced to three concurrent sentences of 37 months imprisonment.  Stevens appealed, and the Third Circuit vacated the conviction and found that §48 was unconstitutional.  The government appealed to the Supreme Court, and it granted certiorari.

The Supreme Court affirmed the Third Circuit’s decision and struck 18 U.S.C. §48 down as unconstitutional.  First, the Court found that depictions of animal cruelty was not a category of unprotected speech.  It looked at whether there is some history of labeling animal cruelty as unprotected speech, but there is no such precedent to be found.  Second, the Court found the statute to be too overbroad.  The government interpreted 18 U.S.C. §48 to be limited to only extreme material, such as “crush videos.”  The Court, however, determined that it covered an alarming breadth.  Lastly, it is determined that the Miller test cannot be applied to other types of speech.  The government argued that the exceptions clause in the statute was lifted from Miller v. California and should, therefore, be acceptable in regards to the First Amendment.  The Court held that the term “serious” in the Miller test only refers to depictions of sex.  It cannot be used generally towards other types of speech.

Although the Supreme Court found for Stevens and struck down 18 U.S.C. §48, it is important to note that they did not decide whether “crush videos” are acceptable or not.  The Court only held that the statute was too broad and, therefore, unconstitutional.

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