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

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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.

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