From Sullivan v. Univ. from washingtondecided yesterday by Judge Richard Jones (WD Wash.):
The University of Washington’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (“IACUC”) oversees animal research conducted at the university. The committee “approves and monitors all proposed projects that include vertebrates or cephalopods” to “ensure[e] that animals receive the care, treatment and respect they deserve as essential elements of biomedical research to find cures for diseases and conditions that afflict both humans and animals. »
The IACUC holds monthly public meetings, where members of the public can speak. Some members of the public hope to end animal research at the University of Washington. Their comments vary, from calling the researchers “sadistic” to comparing the university and the IACUC to Auschwitz and the Nazis. On other occasions, “people associated with animal research” at the university have even received “harassing emails, letters and voicemails, some including threatening language”. See also Dekt. #4 ¶¶ 6-7 (picketing outside researcher’s private home, kidnapping of pets), Dkt. #5 ¶¶ 7-8 (calling animal researchers “vile [expletive] humans” and saying “I will do what is necessary to stop research on animals”).
Given the hostility, IACUC members are anonymous, currently “identified only by initials online and in [the committee’s] meeting minutes published publicly. Yet opponents of animal research are seeking certain documents from the university that would end this anonymity.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals… is an organization that seeks to “expose[e] the cruelty of animal testing” to “ensure their imminent end”. Last year, a PETA representative made a public records request under Washington’s Public Records Act. Specifically, the representative requested the IACUC members’ “nomination letters” These letters contain personal identifying information of the committee members: names, email addresses, titles, department affiliations, etc.
The University of Washington intends to grant this public records request. He said he would release the documents tomorrow, February 25, 2022, unless a court order restraining the university is entered at 4:00 p.m. today.
Fearing that disclosing this personal information could lead to harassment and threats, IACUC members…filed for a temporary restraining order…. They are asking the Court to enjoin the university from disclosing the personal identifying information of any current, former or alternate member of the IACUC in response to any request for public records. The University of Washington does not oppose the motion….
Starting with the merits, the Court finds that the plaintiffs have at least raised serious issues. The plaintiffs assert a First Amendment claim for violation of their constitutional freedom to associate. To prevail against this claim, they must show that (1) they were engaging in an activity protected by the First Amendment and (2) disclosure of such personal information would subject them to “threats, harassment, or retaliation” that would a deterrent effect on this activity. activity..
Here, the plaintiffs have raised serious questions about this assertion. IACUC members appear to be engaged in academic research. This constitutes expressive conduct under the First Amendment. And, based on this record, disclosing the personally identifiable information of IACUC members would likely result in threats, harassment, or retaliation. Opponents of animal research apparently picketed the private home of a University of Washington researcher. An opponent of the research said they would ‘do what is necessary to stop animal research’. Some researchers have even seen their pets kidnapped by such opponents.
With respect to the balance between the actions and the public interest, the Court finds that these factors weigh heavily in favor of the plaintiffs. There is no doubt that the public is interested in animal research at the University of Washington. Yet the public already has access to much of this information. IACUC meetings are public – in effect, they are on Zoom, allowing the public from across the country to join. At these meetings, members of the public may make statements. Minutes of meetings are also made public. The additional knowledge which would be acquired thanks to the “letters of appointment” seems marginal. It appears that the letters would only provide personal identifying information of IACUC members, contributing little, if anything, to the public’s understanding of the type of research conducted by the university.
Meanwhile, the legitimate fear of reprisals suddenly swings the other way. Service on IACUC is voluntary. And the IACUC is integral to monitoring research projects to ensure they comply with state and federal laws. And this research aims to find cures for human and animal diseases. Many IACUC members fear for their safety. This fear compromises their ability to do their job, perhaps even leading to 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, as the loss of First Amendment freedoms “unquestionably” constitutes irreparable harm…. The TRO will become effective upon formal service of this order and will remain in effect for 14 days, unless extended by court order…. Defendants are ORDERED TO SHOW CASE no later than March 7, 2022 why the Court should not convert this TRO to a preliminary injunction….
I expect PETA or another similar group to step in and oppose the injunction, if it looks like the University won’t fight the preliminary injunction just like it didn’t oppose the TRO.