Dogfighting Videos: Obscenity or Free Speech?

Justices will determine the line between free speech and animal rights.

ByABC News
September 25, 2009, 3:19 PM

Oct. 2, 2009— -- The issue of violent videos depicting dogfighting will come to the Supreme Court Oct. 6, as justices take on a major First Amendment case and try to determine where to draw the line between free speech and animal rights.

Robert Stevens, a 69-year-old documentary producer, operated a business out of his rural Virginia home called Dogs of Velvet and Steel. While Stevens has said he has long opposed dogfighting, he sought to educate the public about pit bulls by producing films about the breed.

In one video, Stevens, sitting in a rocking chair, talks about tapes shot in Japan in the early 1950s or '60s. It is clear that Stevens is not taping the fight but providing after-the-fact narration.

At one point Stevens says, "I cannot emphasize enough that this video in no way promotes dogfighting or gambling."

Stevens' lawyers say he included the violent, but apparently bloodless, footage to represent what he sees as the admirable traits of the breed.

But his narration provides a play-by-play of the dogs fighting each other. At one point Stevens says, "You know who my pick is."

Stevens marketed his films on his Web site,

The violent depictions in the videos are what landed Stevens in trouble with animal rights organizations and federal law.

He was convicted and sentenced to 37 months imprisonment for violating a 1999 federal law that prohibits "knowingly selling depictions of animal cruelty, with the intention of placing them in interstate commerce." The law was passed to target the problem of animal cruelty.

A federal appeals court came to Stevens' rescue and invalidated his sentence and the statute. The court found that his distribution of the videos was protected by First Amendment freedom of speech.