United States v. Stevens: Case Brief

Instructor: Erin Krcatovich

Erin teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration and has a PhD in Political Science.

United States v. Stevens (2010) is a Supreme Court case related to issues of free speech and animal cruelty. In this lesson, we will learn about the facts of the case, the constitutional question at play, and the decision of the Court.

Dog-Fighting in the News

In 2007, NFL player Michael Vick's property was raided by federal agents. On it, they discovered 54 living dogs, many starving, as well as the bodies of other deceased dogs. Most convincingly, the agents found a blood-soaked arena for dog-fighting, as well as the cages, restraints, and tools for operating a dog-fighting ring. The degree of cruelty and violence was shocking, even to those accustomed to intervening in animal abuse cases.

Vick was convicted of operating a dog-fighting ring and related gambling charges. Dog-fighting is a gambling enterprise where dogs are bred for aggression, abused into a crazed frenzy, and then pitted against one another in rings until one animal kills the other, with betting on the outcome of the fights. It is illegal in the United States and many other countries.

In United States v. Stevens, from 2010, the Supreme Court takes up the related issues of creating images or videos of cruelty to animals. Do you think that a public dog-fight ''depicts'' cruelty to animals for other people's entertainment? And if so, should it be protected as a freedom of expression?

Facts of the Case

In 2010, the United States Congress changed part of the federal criminal code, 18 U. S. C. §48, making it illegal to produce or profit from materials that depict cruelty to animals. The law specifies that these materials show a ''living animal'' being tortured, possibly to death, often in so-called ''crush videos'' where an animal is hurt or killed in a pornographic context (559 U.S. 3, 2010).

In the case of United States v. Stevens, the Court was asked to consider whether this law applied to dog-fighting as well. Robert J. Stevens operated a website where you could purchase videos of dog-fights and dog-attacks. Stevens was convicted under this law, because he was profiting from the sale of images of animal cruelty. He appealed his conviction, on the grounds that it violated his First Amendment freedom of expression, better known as the freedom of speech.

Constitutional Question

Does 18 U. S. C. §48, a law about depicting animal cruelty, violate the First Amendment?

The Supreme Court takes up cases when they present an interesting question about how to interpret our Constitution. Do you think that Stevens has a right to express himself, through the sale of videos depicting animal cruelty?

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