In a case that pits free-speech defenders against animal rights activists, the justices will consider whether the 1st Amendment should protect depictions of animals being hurt.
The video images were disturbing -- a tiny white kitten singed with the flame from a lighter; a gray cat struggling beneath a woman's spiked heel; pit bulls tearing into a trapped animal.
The Supreme Court has often said that freedom of speech includes ugly and foul language. But this fall the justices will be looking at video clips like these to decide whether selling films of dogfights or animal torture is protected from prosecution under the 1st Amendment.
The dispute, expected to be heard in early October 2009, has driven a wedge between traditional free-speech advocates and defenders of the humane treatment of animals.
Book publishers, movie makers, photographers, artists and journalists have joined the case on the side of a Virginia man who was convicted of selling videos of dogfights. They argue that any new exception to the 1st Amendment, no matter how laudable the goal, poses a danger to free expression.
"The road to censorship is paved with good intentions," said Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship.
But animal rights advocates say no one should be able to profit from the abuse and torture of animals for entertainment.