Filmmakers Favored in Supreme Court Ruling on U.S. v. Stevens

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First Amendment Defended by Entertainment Attorney and Amicus Advocate Michael C. Donaldson

Free speech advocates and documentary filmmakers alike gained a victory today when the United States Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of voiding a 1999 animal cruelty law in favor of free speech protections guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Three documentary film organizations filed an amicus brief on behalf of a documentary filmmaker who made a film about the history of pit bulls and included a clip of dog fights in Japan, where dog fighting is legal. Filmmaker Robert Stevens was sentenced to three years in prison for violating a federal statute that criminalizes the depiction of cruelty to animals in film.

Michael C. Donaldson, former IDA President and founding partner of Beverly Hills law firm Donaldson & Callif, arranged for the three film organizations to be a part of the amicus filings in the case and attended the Supreme Court hearings in October. "Filmmakers need to be able to rely on their First Amendment rights to tell their stories without fear of criminal prosecution," Donaldson said. "The Stevens decision handed down today is a great victory because it reassures filmmakers that those First Amendment rights are protected."

The statute, which criminalized the commercial creation, sale or possession of certain depictions of animal cruelty, was enacted for the purpose of cracking down on "crush videos," in which women in high-heeled shoes step on small animals as a kind of sexual fetish. President Clinton signed the bill into law and sent instructions to the Justice Department to limit prosecution to videos that appealed to a "prurient interest in sex," but the Bush administration prosecuted three cases under the statute that did not have the "prurient interest in sex."

Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, said that the law was unnecessarily overbroad and therefore invalid under the First Amendment. Although some depictions of animal cruelty were exempted from the law, Roberts said, some speech which was otherwise protected, such as "most hunting videos," would not be exempted from the law.

As an "amicus," - a "friend" of the Court rather than a party to the action - the film organizations urged the Court to rule in favor of Stevens because of the case's First Amendment implications. The decision is important to filmmakers because they need to be able to exercise their free speech rights in order to shed light on, or expose, newsworthy activities or practices to the viewing public. For instance, notable documentaries such as The Cove and Food, Inc. depended on footage of animal hunting, which may have been prohibited under the statute if it were to stand.

U.S. Justice Department lawyers had argued that animal cruelty videos should be treated like child pornography and given no constitutional protection. But while American law has a long history of protecting against animal cruelty, Stevens noted, it has no tradition of protecting against depictions of animal cruelty. The Court declined to declare a new category of speech to be outside the scope of the First Amendment because there was no evidence to support that it has been historically unprotected.

The Justice Department also argued that the statute was not overbroad because former President Clinton had announced that the statute would only be used to protect against the wave of "crush videos," but the Court was not convinced - it refused to rewrite the statute in order to conform to its constitutional requirements.

A federal appeals court struck down the 1999 statute last year on First Amendment grounds, and the government appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court agreed to review the case, held hearings on the case in October, and handed down its decision today.

For more information on Michael C. Donaldson, please visit: http://www.donaldsoncallif.com.

U.S. v. Stevens, case No. 08-769.

Media contact:
Marlan Willardson
MWPR
marlan(at)mw-pr.com

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MARLAN WILLARDSON
MWPR
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