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4 Supreme Court Cases That Will Say a Lot About the Direction of Our Country

Would a Human Sacrifice TV Channel be protected by the First Amendment? Answers to this and other key questions will be answered.

As the Supreme Court kicked off its new season last week with a brand new justice on the bench, the cases on the docket provided a fascinating glimpse into the judicial soul of the country.

In the first days alone, there were cases involving dog fighting, a controversial cross on public land, and a number of prickly criminal justice issues.

The months to come will test laws on some of the most controversial issues of our time, including guns, sex offenders and the uniquely American question of whether teenagers can be sentenced to life without parole. The outcomes will tell us a lot about the future direction of the Roberts court, and what it might mean to have Justice Sonia Sotomayor on the bench.

The cases below might seem like an odd assortment: provocative, but not necessarily the ones that will be considered the most significant by court watchers. (Not included are Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a crucial case that will have implications for campaign-finance reform, or two Second Amendment cases that have the gun lobby on its toes.) But put together, the decisions will paint a pretty interesting portrait of where the country finds itself in matters of law and justice.

1. U.S. v. Stevens: "Can Congress Ban the Human Sacrifice Channel?"

OK, it's not actually about human sacrifice, but it is a First Amendment doozy. Last Tuesday, the court heard U.S. v. Stevens, which centers on the government's power to outlaw videos and other depictions of animal cruelty.

The case involves the free-speech rights (or not) of a Virginia man named Robert Stevens, who landed in jail for selling videos depicting pit bull fighting. His conviction was based on a 1999 federal law designed to punish anyone who "knowingly creates, sells or possesses a depiction of animal cruelty" for commercial gain -- legislation apparently inspired by sex-fetish videos that show small animals being crushed to death by women in stilettos. Really.

Appalling? Of course. But for the court, that's not the relevant question. Last year, a federal appeals court overturned Stevens' conviction, saying that the law that sent him to prison is too sweeping and could potentially lead to unintended bans on books, documentaries and other legitimate works that happen to contain depictions of animal being injured or killed (even though the law attempted to make an exception for depictions that have "serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical or artistic value").

First Amendment defenders have long maintained that even the most vile and morally reprehensible forms of expression must be allowed if, say, we are to have a free press in this country.

Indeed, among the amicus briefs filed on behalf of Stevens was one on behalf of 14 news media organizations that argued that "the exceptions clause is not nearly broad enough to protect legitimate news coverage."

"The goal of preventing crush videos and other animal cruelty is certainly a worthy one," the brief argued. "It is this very interest in protecting animals from abuse that makes speech about their treatment so valuable."

Indeed, as lawyers for the defendant have pointed out, animal-rights groups (a number of whom have filed amicus briefs in support of the other side) sometimes use disturbing imagery of animal suffering in their own advocacy to raise awareness and support for their work.

Monday's oral arguments didn't get into freedom of the press or animal rights advocacy (although they did note the fact that "animal cruelty" is highly subjective -- just ask a militant vegan). But they were chock-full of colorful hypotheticals -- or as Justice Antonin Scalia put it, "First Amendment horribles" -- including a novel invention by conservative Justice Samuel Alito, who wanted to see just how far Stevens' lawyer would go to defend free speech: Would the First Amendment protect a live, pay-per-view "human sacrifice channel," he asked; a question subsequently revisited by his colleagues throughout the morning.

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