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Interesting Public Records vs. Academic Freedom Case Related to Animal Research

UPDATE: As predicted, PETA has moved to intervene. FURTHER UPDATE: The court has indeed allowed PETA to intervene.


From Sullivan v. Univ. of Washington, decided yesterday by Judge Richard Jones (W.D. Wash.):

The Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee ("IACUC") at the University of Washington monitors animal research conducted at the university. The committee "approves and monitors all proposed projects that include vertebrates or cephalopods" to "ensur[e] that animals receive the care, treatment and respect they deserve as critical components of biomedical research to find cures for diseases and conditions that afflict both humans and animals."

The IACUC hosts monthly public meetings, where members of the public may speak. Some members of the public hope to end the University of Washington's animal research outright. Their comments vary, from referring to researchers as "sadistic" to comparing the university and IACUC to Auschwitz and Nazis. On other occasions, "individuals associated with animal research" at the university have even received "harassing emails, letters and voice messages, some including threatening language." See also Dkt. # 4 ¶¶ 6-7 (picketing outside of researcher's private home, kidnapping of pets), Dkt. # 5 ¶¶ 7-8 (calling animal researchers "vile [expletive] humans" and saying "I'm going to do what is necessary to stop animal research").

Given the hostility, IACUC members are anonymous, currently "identified only by initials online and in [the committee's] publicly posted meeting minutes." Yet opponents of animal research seek to obtain certain documents from the university that would end that anonymity.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals … is an organization that seeks to "expos[e] the cruelty of animal tests" to "ensure their imminent end." Last year, a PETA representative made a request for public records under Washington's Public Records Act. Specifically, the representative requested the "appointment letters" of IACUC members. Those letters contain personal identifying information of the committee members: names, email addresses, titles, department affiliations, and more.

The University of Washington intends to grant that public records request. It said that it would release the documents tomorrow, February 25, 2022, unless a court order enjoining the university is entered today at 4:00 P.M.

Fearing that the release of this personal information would result in harassment and threats, members of IACUC … filed a motion for a temporary restraining order …. They ask the Court to enjoin the university from disclosing personal identifying information of any current, former, or alternate member of IACUC in response to any public records request. The University of Washington does not oppose the motion….

Starting with the merits, the Court finds that Plaintiffs have at least raised serious questions. Plaintiffs assert a First Amendment claim for the violation of their constitutional freedom to associate. To prevail on this claim, they must show that (1) they were engaged in protected First Amendment activity and (2) disclosure of that personal information would subject them to "threats, harassment, or reprisals" that would have a chilling effect on that activity..

Here, Plaintiffs have raised serious questions on this claim. The IACUC members appear to be engaged in university research. That constitutes expressive conduct under the First Amendment. And, based on this record, the release of IACUC members' personal identifying information would likely result in threats, harassment, or reprisal. Opponents of animal research have apparently picketed outside of a University of Washington researcher's private home.  A research opponent has said that they were "going to do what is necessary to stop animal research."  Some researchers have even had their pets kidnapped by such opponents.

Turning to the balance of the equities and the public interest, the Court finds that these factors tip sharply in Plaintiffs' favor. No doubt, the public has an interest in the University of Washington's animal research. Yet the public already has access to much of this information. IACUC meetings are public—indeed, they are on Zoom, allowing the public across the country to join.  At those meetings, members from the public may make statements. Meeting minutes are also made public. What incremental knowledge would be gained from the "appointment letters" seems marginal. It appears that the letters would just provide personal identifying information of IACUC members, contributing little, if anything, to the public's understanding of the type of research the university conducts.

Meanwhile, the legitimate fear of reprisal tips sharply the other way. Service on IACUC is voluntary. And IACUC is integral to monitoring research projects to ensure that they comply with state and federal laws. And that research aims at finding cures for human and animal diseases. Many IACUC members fear for their safety. This fear compromises their ability to do their job, maybe even resulting in their resignation or the deterrence of potential future members.

Finally, the Court finds that irreparable harm would likely result if this information were made public because loss of First Amendment freedoms "unquestionably" constitute irreparable injury…. The TRO will be effective upon formal service of this Order and will remain in effect for 14 days, unless extended by order of the Court…. Defendants are ORDERED TO SHOW CAUSE on or before March 7, 2022, why the Court should not convert this TRO into a preliminary injunction….

I expect PETA or some other such group will move to intervene and oppose the injunction, if it looks like the University won't fight the preliminary injunction just as it didn't oppose the TRO.

UPDATE 3/2/2022: Sure enough, PETA has indeed moved to intervene in this case.

FURTHER UPDATE 3/4/2022: PETA's motion to intervene has been granted.

NEXT: Short Circuit: A Roundup of Recent Federal Court Decisions

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  1. A patient movement is needed. It should have a direct action arm. That group should hunt animal rights advocates who threaten research that will save human lives. A list of opponents of medical research should be posted, with the evidence of their opposition.

    1. Most of these dog people are judgment proof, and the legal system is worthless for recourse to protect medical research.

      1. Have you considered a post about the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

        Typically i don't think it's the business of this blog but: 1. You all talk about authoritarians
        2. You insist on letting your version of tucker Carlson post here and Tucker was promoting the invasion till recently

        1. Please, see the post above this one.

        2. 1. The VCers talk about what they want, most of which is related to US law.
          2. Prof. Volokh also insists on letting gaslighters and other Russian stooges post here, not to mention you.
          3. There was plenty of discussion of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Thursday's open thread.

          1. Ilya also had a long post on the subject on Wednesday, though I think before the war turned as hot as it has since.

            I haven't posted about it since this is the sort of topic on which one needs to know a lot to know even a little (except for the obvious reactions, which I doubt will add much value to our readers). I might yet end up writing something, if there's a narrow subject on which I think I'd have something to say, or if there's an outside article that strikes me as particularly good and worth linking to; but I'm not sure, and nothing has struck me so far.

            1. I'd just like to give my (and I expect the entire commentariat's) heartfelt best wishes to any friends or relatives of yours that are in danger there. This has to be a real nail-biter of a time.

    2. PETA is a domestic terrorist organization.

  2. Animal research is the foundation of all modern medical science. Practically every treatment and drug we have is the result of animal testing. If these people are so concerned about creatures who die less gruesomely than they often do in nature they should refuse all modern medicine.

    1. They could volunteer to substitute.

      (A man rings a lady's doorbell. When she answers, he says, "I am terribly sorry, but I ran over your cat. If like to replace him, if I could." She replies, "That sounds fine, but how are you at catching mice?")

  3. What first amendment rights do these people really have in this? They are working for the government doing government work. We're not talking about their private speech on their own time, this is exactly what they are being appointed by the government to do.

    And I wish courts would do a better job distinguishing between "harassment" that's actually constitutionally-protected activity and "harassment" that's illegal threats. The fact that somebody might call you names if they know who you are or picket outside your house if they know where you live doesn't move me much.

    1. "...picket outside your house if they know where you live doesn't move me much"

      It moves me quite a bit :-).

      People all have different opinions. For one of many examples, I really dislike tax money getting spent on sports stadiums. It's perfectly OK for me to write letters to my legislators, or go picket city hall, etc, etc.

      But picketing their houses, badgering them in restaurants, protesting at their kid's Little League games, etc, is rude. I hold lots of minority opinions, and I just need to accept that I don't get to badger everyone else into adopting my off the wall opinions. It's one of those things that doesn't scale 'if everyone does it'. Who wants to be mayor if that means your house is constantly surrounded by protestors and counter protestors on a dozen different topics?

      1. Is it an asshole move? Yes. Is it constitutionally protected? Yes.

        1. So, just to be clear, you think the courts should go ahead and greenlight people being assholes even when it has the potential to become more than just being an asshole. (There are also threats and kidnapping of pets).

          I'd suggest people have a real privacy interest in their home address, and court-facilitated doxing is a bad idea. Employers should not be surrendering the home addresses of their employees, even if the employer is the government.

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