Cover Story: Federal Animal "Crush" Law Tested in Houston

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In December 2012, two Houstonians became the first defendants charged under the Animal Crush Video Prohibition Act of 2010, which criminalizes the production and distribution of images of animal cruelty.

Ashley Nicole Richards and Brent Wayne Justice were originally charged in Harris County District Court with animal cruelty, which carries a two-year maximum sentence. But the District Attorney's Office soon dropped the charges without comment -- perhaps out of deference to the much steeper sentencing the couple faced in federal court.

But then something happened that shocked animal welfare advocates: U.S. District Court Judge Sim Lake tossed all the counts under the 2010 law, declaring it in violation of the First Amendment.

Judge Lake found that, in crafting the statute, Congress overreached and tried to carve out a new category of unprotected speech, which aligned with the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on the 1999 law that the current one replaced.

Congress believed both laws were necessary as tools to prosecute the producers and distributors, since the on-screen participants doing the actual torture and killing are often difficult to locate and identify. Such was not the case with Richards and Justice, who are tied to the videos by a massive amount of evidence (including Richards' own admissions).

The District Attorney's Office can always reinstate the cruelty charges, and we hope they do. As described in this week's cover story, "Open Season," the videos are highly disturbing. But if Judge Lake's ruling is upheld by higher courts, it appears that such filmed demonstrations of wanton animal cruelty might very well be considered protected speech.

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