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Media Alerts - United States v. Richards - Fifth Circuit
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June 13, 2014
  United States v. Richards - Fifth Circuit
Headline: Fifth Circuit Upholds Federal "Crush Video" Law Against Constitutional Challenge.

Area of Law: First Amendment, criminal law.

Issue Presented: Whether the federal statute prohibiting creation and distribution of "crush videos" (18 U.S.C. § 48) is unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

Brief Summary: Federal prosecutors charged the defendants with violating the federal "crush video" law, which prohibits the creation or distribution of certain pornographic films in which animals are killed or seriously harmed. The current version of the law was enacted after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the prior version on First Amendment grounds several years ago. The defendants moved to dismiss the indictment on the grounds that the revised statute still violates the First Amendment. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas granted the defendants' motion, agreeing that the statute is unconstitutional. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit concluded that the revised statute is constitutional. The court accordingly reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

Significance: The Fifth Circuit upholds the federal "crush video" law, a prior version of which had been held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Extended Summary: In United States v. Stevens (2010), the U.S. Supreme Court held that a federal statute prohibiting depictions of animal cruelty violated the First Amendment's Free Speech Clause. Congress responded by amending the statute to reach a narrower range of conduct. The revised statute applies to videos that (1) depict conduct in which animals are intentionally killed or seriously injured and (2) are "obscene." 18 U.S.C. § 48.

Federal prosecutors charged Ashley Nicole Richards and Brent Justice with violating the new version of the law. The defendants moved to dismiss the indictment on the grounds that the revised statute is still unconstitutional on its face. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas granted the defendants' motion, agreeing that the statute violates the First Amendment.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit disagreed with the district court and concluded that the revised statute is constitutional. The Fifth Circuit observed that the new version is significantly narrower than its predecessor, most importantly in that it reaches only "obscene" depictions of harm to animals. "Obscene" speech, as defined in a long line of precedent, is constitutionally unprotected sexual material. Therefore, by definition, the statute by its terms reaches only unprotected speech. The defendants further contended that even if the statute prohibits only obscenity, the statute unfairly targets only a narrow category of obscenity based on the nature of its content (i.e., only those obscene depictions that involve injury to animals). The court rejected this argument, reasoning that particular categories of obscenity may be targeted based on their socially harmful secondary effects - here, cruelty to animals.

Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court and remanded for further proceedings.

For the full opinion, please see: http://www.ca5.uscourts.gov/op...ub\13/13-20265-CR0.pdf.

Panel: Circuit Judges Wiener, Haynes, and Higginson

Argument Date: 3/11/2014

Date of Issued Opinion: 6/13/2014

Docket Number: No. 13-20265

Decided: Reversed and remanded

Counsel: John Michael Pellettieri, Department of Justice, for Plaintiff-Appellant United States; Joyce A. Raynor for Defendant-Appellee Richards; Marjorie A. Meyers, Federal Public Defender's Office, for Defendant-Appellee Justice.

Author of Opinion: Judge Higginson

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Aaron-Andrew P. Bruhl

    Posted By: Aaron Bruhl @ 06/13/2014 09:32 PM     5th Circuit  

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