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Free Speech Defended In U.S. v. Stevens, Publishers Applaud Supreme Court

First Posted: 06/21/10 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 05:15 PM ET

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From the Association of American Publishers:

Washington, DC, April 21, 2010--The Association of American Publishers (AAP) welcomed the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in U.S. v. Stevens as an important affirmation of the First Amendment's free speech guarantee. By a vote of 8-1 the Court struck down a federal statute broadly criminalizing depictions of animal cruelty.

Last summer, AAP joined Media Coalition colleagues in filing an amicus brief opposing the government's assertion that a whole category of speech could be denied First Amendment protection when Congress determines that the "value" of the speech is outweighed by the government's interest in suppressing it.

Writing for the majority, and calling the government's "free floating test" for First Amendment protection "startling and dangerous," Chief Justice John Roberts said: "The First Amendment's guarantee of free speech does not extend only to categories of speech that survive an ad hoc balancing of relative social costs and benefits." The Court found the law to be unconstitutionally overbroad, even with its exception for materials with "serious value."

The Clinton-era law, which prohibited the creation, sale or possession of a depiction of animal cruelty, was aimed at so-called "crush videos," a particularly repellent sexual fetish involving the stomping of small animals. The law passed by Congress, however, was far broader than its original intent. Aimed at "regulating the treatment of animals," the statute criminalized speech about acts of animal cruelty that are already illegal in all 50 states. The amicus brief filed by members of Media Coalition pointed out that the breadth of the statute would have put at risk creators of illustrated books, films, or magazine articles graphically depicting things such as hunting, slaughterhouse practices, or bullfighting. The law was used to prosecute and convict Robert J. Stevens, a dog-trainer who sold videos containing dog-fighting footage although he did not participate in the dog fights. Stevens' conviction was overturned by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

"The First Amendment allows us to speak and publish more freely in this country than anywhere else in the world," said Judith Platt, AAP's Director of Freedom to Read. "Adding another building block to our wall of First Amendment protection, the Stevens ruling reaffirms that, with the exception of a few clearly defined categories, even reprehensible speech is entitled to protection." Ms. Platt had special praise for Media Coalition and its Executive Director David Horowitz for organizing the strong amicus effort, and for Jonathan Bloom (Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP), counsel to AAP's Freedom to Read Committee, who was the principal author of the amicus brief.

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Filed by Jessie Kunhardt  |