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Victory for free speech and human (not animal) rights

In a defense of the First Amendment free-speech rights, the Supreme Court struck down a federal law that banned videos and other depictions of cruel acts against animals.

There are a few areas, such as child pornography, where speech is considered to fall outside of the First Amendment. The law effectively sought to have animal cruelty added to this list. The government argued that Congress should be able to proscribe new areas if it believes their “societal costs” exceed their “value”. However, Chief Justice John Roberts  rejected that argument: “As a free-floating test for First Amendment coverage,” the government’s defense was “startling and dangerous”. The verdict was nearly unanimous: 8-1, with Samuel Alito the sole dissenter.

The Court’s decision should be applauded for two reasons: one, because it was a victory for free speech; and two, because it was a defeat for those who contend that there are such things as “animal rights”. As a society we may deem certain acts against animals as unacceptably cruel; that is a matter for social debate. But “rights” is a human concept, and only humans can exercise them. Claiming that animals have rights demeans the content of our rights as people.

Following the conclusion of the Citizens United case (in which corporations were deemed free to spend in elections), the Supreme Court’s latest decision indicates that the Roberts court has a more libertarian streak regarding the First Amendment than recent courts. However, we shouldn’t forget that not all restraints on speech are state-proscribed or involuntary (we still live in a “you can’t say that” culture), and the only guarantee of a truly robust, free-speech society is the vigilance of a people, not a body of nine judges.

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