FTRF urges Supreme Court to reject broad speech ban

Contact: Deborah Caldwell-Stone

Acting Executive Director, FTRF


For Immediate Release

July 30, 2009

CHICAGO – The Freedom to Read Foundation (FTRF), the First Amendment legal defense arm of the American Library Association (ALA), has joined publishers, booksellers, writers and other media groups in urging the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down a statute that, if upheld, would allow the government to ban a wide range of material it deems to lack value, including many mainstream books, magazines and movies.Â

The law in question, a 1999 law that makes it a crime to create, sell or possess any photograph, film, video or sound recording in which an animal is harmed or killed, subjects anyone convicted under the law to a possible five-year prison term and fines.

The lawsuit concerns the criminal conviction of a Virginia man, Robert Stevens, who was sentenced to three years in prison for creating several documentaries that included scenes of dog fighting. In the amicus brief filed this week in U.S. v. Stevens, FTRF, the Association of American Publishers, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, PEN American Center and other members of Media Coalition urge the Supreme Court to overturn Stevens’ conviction and strike down the statute on the grounds that the law seriously threatens freedom of speech.

“This is one of the most significant First Amendment cases we have seen in recent years,” FTRF President Kent Oliver said. “The government is arguing that a whole category of speech can be denied First Amendment protection based on the radical proposition that the perceived value of the speech should be weighed against a compelling government interest. Such a balancing test would allow the abridgment of First Amendment rights with respect to broad categories of speech found to have ‘low value’ and could easily encompass many forms of expression.

“As repugnant as dog fighting and animal torture are, the law in question does nothing to prohibit those crimes; instead, it creates an exception to the First Amendment to ban the depiction or recording of such occurrences. This strikes us as extreme. We are particularly troubled by the government’s argument that would create a broad new category of speech that would be subject to government censorship.”

The “friend of the court” brief argues that the 1999 law would clearly apply to material that is today protected by the First Amendment, including photos, films and books about hunting, bullfighting and slaughterhouse practices. While the law does provide an exemption for material with “serious” value, the brief declares that this does not provide enough protection for legitimate works, since the determination of whether the work has serious value will be left to judges and juries who have different definitions of the term. For example, although Stevens emphasized that his films were documentaries, the judge asserted that they lacked “great import.”

U.S. v. Stevens is scheduled to be argued before the Supreme Court on Oct. 6, 2009.

The Media Coalition brief was written by Jonathan Bloom of Weil, Gotshal and Manges, working with Michael A. Bamberger of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal. It is available online at

Along with FTRF, the signers of the Media Coalition amicus brief include the Association of American University Presses, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Entertainment Consumers Association, Entertainment Merchants Association, Independent Book Publishers Association and the National Association of Recording Merchandisers.