Legal Briefs

United States v. Stevens

Although many states have passed laws outlawing acts of animal cruelty, Congress in 1999 for the first time made it a federal crime simply to depict those acts. Under that statute, the government convicted Robert Stevens of selling documentary films containing footage of dog fighting—even though Stevens, a pit bull enthusiast, was opposed to dog fighting and had not engaged in it himself. Seeking to preserve its conviction against a First Amendment challenge, the government took a broad view in the Supreme Court of its power to suppress speech. The government maintained that the “strict scrutiny” test usually applied to content-based speech prohibitions need not apply where speech can be characterized as “unprotected.” And although some narrow categories of speech have long been recognized as “unprotected” by the First Amendment (e.g., fighting words, incitement, defamation, obscenity), the government proposed a balancing test that would allow new categories of speech to be carved out from First Amendment protection any time the “societal costs” of the speech are deemed to outweigh its “value.” Cato filed a brief supporting Stevens, arguing that the government’s position was a dangerous and unprecedented encroachment on the freedom of speech. Our brief canvasses the Court’s doctrine to show how inventing a new category of previously unrecognized “unprotected” speech would entail a radical shift in the Court’s jurisprudence. Our brief also illustrates how the absence of a limiting principle in the government’s proposed balancing test could be used in future cases to impose a host of new speech restrictions—from laws prohibiting “defamation” of religion and hate speech to laws prohibiting the depiction of drug use.

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