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United States v. Stevens - 559 U.S. 460, 130 S. Ct. 1577 (2010)

Rule:

In the First Amendment context, the Supreme Court of the United States recognizes a type of facial challenge whereby a law may be invalidated as overbroad if a substantial number of its applications are unconstitutional, judged in relation to the statute's plainly legitimate sweep.

Facts:

Defendant Robert Stevens was charged in federal district court with selling depictions of animal cruelty in violation of 18 U.S.C.S. § 48, which criminalized the commercial creation, sale, or possession of certain depictions of animal cruelty. The statute addressed only portrayals of harmful acts, not the underlying conduct. Stevens filed a motion to dismiss the indictment arguing that § 48 was facially invalid under the First Amendment. The district court denied his motion, and Stevens was convicted. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit vacated the conviction and declared § 48 facially unconstitutional as a content-based regulation of protected speech. The Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari.

Issue:

Was 18 U.S.C.S. § 48 facially unconstitutional as a content-based regulation of protected speech?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of the United States held that 18 U.S.C.S. § 48 was substantially overbroad, and therefore invalid under the First Amendment. According to the Court, depictions of animal cruelty were not, as a class, categorically unprotected speech, and § 48 did not even require that the depicted conduct be cruel as suggested by maiming, mutilation, and torture, but not by wounding or killing. Further, the Court ruled that the requirement that the depicted conduct be unlawful extended to hunting and animal protection laws which were unrelated to cruelty; depictions of conduct which was lawful in one state could constitute illegal depictions in another state, and the government's expressed intent to apply § 48 only to extreme depictions was insufficient to overcome the statute's overbreadth.

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