Summary of United States v. Stevens
Citation: 559 U.S. ___, 130 S.Ct. 1577 (2010)
Relevant Facts: Robert Stevens ran a business and operated a website that sold, and distributed, videos depicting violent images of animals. Amongst other offerings, Stevens sold videos that depicted dog fights. Federal prosecutors brought charges against Stevens under 18 U.S.C. §48. Under the law, Congress sought to punish the material depictions themselves rather than the underlying conduct, as participants in the acts were often difficult to locate. The relevant statute criminalized depictions of behavior towards animals where the underlying acts would violate state or federal law where the videos were made. Stevens argued that both the statute itself and the legislative history suggested Congress sought to criminalize only “crush videos" in which participants killed small animals in order to appeal to a particular sexual fetish. Stevens argued that his prosecution by the United States under the statute violated his First Amendment rights, and raised a facial constitutional challenge to §48 in his motion to dismiss. The District Court denied Stevens’ motion, and he was convicted. The Third Circuit, sitting en banc, overturned his conviction, concluding that statute was unconstitutional as a content-based prohibition on protected speech. The Supreme Court granted certiorari.
Issue: Does the First Amendment protect depictions of animal cruelty? If depictions of animal cruelty are protected, does §48 violate the Defendant’s First Amendment rights?
Holding: Yes, the First Amendment applies to depictions of animal cruelty and the Court refused to create a special exception exempting animal cruelty from First Amendment protections. Yes, the statute is facially invalid as it is substantially broader than necessary to protect the compelling government interests in preventing animal cruelty.
Reasoning : Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court, joined by Justices Stevens, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor. First, the Court explained that depictions of animal cruelty are not exempted, as a class, from First Amendment protections. While the First Amendment does not apply to certain classes of speech, such as obscenity and defamation, the Court declined to extend those exceptions to animal cruelty. While the government suggested a balancing test that would weigh the value of the speech at issue against its societal costs, the Court explained that the First Amendment has never been subject to such a balancing test for protected speech and instead represents the collective judgment that the value of speech protections outweigh their costs. Accordingly, the government must bear the burden of rebutting the presumptive invalidity of content-based speech restrictions. Under existing precedent, the majority concluded that §48 was over-broad and thus unconstitutional. The Court will find overbreadth where a substantial number of applications prohibit protected speech. In this case, Stevens argued that most applications are unconstitutional, while the government countered that the appropriate applications were limited. Thus, the Court focused on the breadth of construction. Here, Chief Justice Roberts found the law had substantial breadth. Under the plain language, while only depictions of illegal conduct were prohibited, there was no requirement that the conduct be cruel or that the purpose of the underlying statute be designed to prohibit cruelty. Furthermore, the statutory language made depictions illegal if the conduct was illegal where the depiction was in the possession of the defendant, even if it was not illegal where depicted, thus imposing substantial restrictions given the variety of cruelty laws in existence in the states. Furthermore, while the government argued that the statute should be limited to extreme conduct, including crush videos and actual animal cruelty, the language of the statute and exceptions provided contained no such limitation. Next, the majority explained that the Court will not uphold a statute on promise that its overly broad language will only be applied to appropriate cases. Similarly, the Court will only adopt a limited construction where such an interpretation is reasonable. In this case, the majority explained that such a construction would require judicial rewriting rather than judicial construction. Finally, the Court explained that the government failed to defend all foreseeable applications of the law as written. Under the plain language of §48, depictions as innocent as hunting videos could potentially result in criminal prosecution. As a result, the statute is overbroad an incapable of restrictive construction. While the Court did not determine whether a more limited statute would survive constitutional scrutiny, they made clear that the statute as written impermissibly banned protected speech on the basis of content.
Dissent: Justice Alito dissented. In his opinion, the Court should have addressed the question presented under an as-applied challenge rather than a facial one by way of the overbreadth doctrine. As Justice Alito explained, the majority’s analysis was misplaced where they could have more easily evaluated application of the statute to the case at bar. Furthermore, Justice Alito concluded that §48 would be valid as applied to both crush videos and depictions of animal cruelty. The majority’s examples of hunting videos notwithstanding, Justice Alito, following a long explanation of the First Amendment as applied to underlying criminal conduct, would have preferred to remand the case for determination of whether the depictions at issue here violated the statute.
Conclusion: The statute at issue here is facially invalid as an overly broad regulation of protected speech. The Court declined to adopt an exception to First Amendment protections for depictions of animal cruelty and refused to accept the government’s assurances that the statute would only apply to a narrow class of cases.