If you listened to senators questioning Sonia Sotomayor this week, you might come away with the impression that the Supreme Court hears cases involving the good guy vs. the bad guy — a dyslexic firefighter, or a victim of apparent age discrimination, for example.
But the rights guaranteed by the Constitution — and defined by the Supreme Court — are quite often protected by letting some pretty unscrupulous characters skate. You owe your right to be told you don’t have to talk to the police, to a rapist, for example.
Now, the limits of the 1st Amendment — your freedom of speech — is about to be tested because of a guy who sold dogfighting videotapes.
The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case of Robert Stevens in October when it reconvenes.
Let the record show — as it does in the Appeals Court decision — that Mr. Stevens is a real piece of work:
Law enforcement officers arranged to buy three videotapes from Stevens, which form the basis for each of the counts in the indictment. The first two tapes, entitled “Pick-A-Winna” and “Japan Pit Fights,” show circa 1960s and 70s footage of organized dog fights that occurred in the United States and involved pit bulls, as well as footage of more recent dog fights, also involving pit bulls, from Japan. The third video, entitled “Catch Dogs,” shows footage of hunting excursions in which pit bulls were used to “catch” wild boar, as well as footage of pit bulls being trained to perform the function of catching and subduing hogs or boars. This video includes a gruesome depiction of a pit bull attacking the lower jaw of a domestic farm pig. The footage in all three videos is accompanied by introductions, narration and commentary by Stevens, as well as accompanying literature of which Stevens is the author.
His conviction was the first under a federal law that makes it a crime to engage in interstate commerce of a video showing cruelty to animals.
The law came about — the Appeals Court ruling again notes — as a crackdown on “crush videos.”
A crush video is a depiction of “women inflicting . . . torture [on animals] with their bare feet or while wearing high heeled shoes. In some video depictions, the woman’s voice can be heard talking to the animals in a kind of dominatrix patter. The cries and squeals of the animals, obviously in great pain, can also be heard in the videos.”
The court acknowledged that it’s reprehensible, but the law doesn’t regulate the activity; each state has animal cruelty laws. It regulates speech. That’s not always a bad thing; not being able to yell “fire” in a crowded movie theater, for example.
“Three reasons give us pause to conclude that ‘preventing cruelty to animals’ rises to a compelling government interest that trumps an individual’s free speech rights,” the court said in overturning the conviction while inviting the Supreme Court to provide guidance.
And so the high court will provide that guidance. It will do on the second day of the job for presumed new justice Sotomayor. Her first day will consider similar constitutional questions through the case of a child molester.