The limits of free speech

I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again. Despite all the bumper-sticker platitudes about freedom, much of it comes from protecting the despicable acts of some unsavory characters.

wcats04.jpg The latest example comes from a decision today at the U.S. Supreme Court in which justices defined — again — what freedom the Constitution extends. Today, it said people have a right to sell videos of animal fights, and videos of lovely women crushing small animals.

The court today struck down a 1999 law, passed by Congress, that prohibits the depiction of certain animal cruelty. It wasn’t close — an 8-to-1 vote — and proved again there’s nothing more interesting than a Supreme Court opinion.

From the desk of Chief Justice John Roberts:


Such videos feature the intentional torture and killing of helpless animals, including cats, dogs, monkeys, mice, and hamsters. H. R. Rep. No. 106-397, p. 2 (1999) (hereinafter H. R. Rep.).Crush videos often depict women slowly crushing animals to death “with their bare feet or while wearing high heeled shoes,” sometimes while “talking to the animals in a kind of dominatrix patter” over “[t]he cries and squeals of the animals, obviously in great pain.”

Doing battle on behalf of the freedom of speech was Robert Stevens, who ran a business called “Dogs of Velvet and Steel.” Among the featured videos was “Japan Pit Fights” and “Pick-A-Winna: A Pit Bull Documentary.”

He challenged a lower court ruling that said the law preventing him from disseminating his work was constitutional. The government, obviously, claimed otherwise, saying “Whether a given category of speech enjoys First Amendment protection depends upon a categorical balancing of the value of the speech against its societal cost.”

Justice Roberts found that sentence “startling and dangerous.”

“The First Amendment itself reflects a judgment by the American people that the benefits of its restrictions on the Government outweigh the costs,” Roberts wrote. “Our Constitution forecloses any attempt to revise that judgment simply on the basis that some speech is not worth it. The Constitution is not a document ‘prescribing limits, and declaring that those limits may be passed at pleasure.'”

Beautifully-written words, unless you’re a small animal. In other words: Perverts and derelicts get to say what they want to say, too. And the videos are the portrayal of a criminal act, not a criminal act.

Justice Samuel Alito didn’t necessarily agree. In his dissent he said the laws against depictions of child pornography should be applied in this case.


Thus, any crush video made in this country records the actual commission of a criminal act that in-flicts severe physical injury and excruciating pain and ultimately results in death. Those who record the under-lying criminal acts are likely to be criminally culpable, either as aiders and abettors or conspirators. And in the tight and secretive market for these videos, some who sell the videos or possess them with the intent to make a profit may be similarly culpable. (For example, in some cases,crush videos were commissioned by purchasers who speci-fied the details of the acts that they wanted to see per-formed. See H. R. Rep., at 3; Hearing on Depictions of Animal Cruelty 27).

Here is the full opinion (pdf).

  • kennedy

    My general understanding is that it is illegal in this country to profit from the commission of a crime.

    Paying someone to commit a criminal act and then selling the footage for profit seems clearly criminal to me.