Interesting Public Records vs. Academic Freedom Case

Starting at Sullivan v. Univ. WashingtonJudge Richard Jones (W.D.) ruled yesterday in favor of the petition. Wash.):

The University of Washington has an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). This committee oversees the University’s animal research. This committee approves and supervises any proposed project that includes vertebrates or Cephalopods to ensure “ensurability.”[e]It is vital that animals are treated with respect, care and treatment. This will ensure that biomedical research can find treatments for both human and animal diseases.

Members of the public are welcome to speak at monthly meetings held by IACUC. Some public members hope to stop the University of Washington from conducting animal research. They have referred to scientists as “sadistic”, and compared the university to Auschwitz or Nazis. Other times, university “individuals involved with animal research” have received harassing email, voice and letter messages. Some even included threatening language. You can also see Dkt. # 4 ¶¶ 6-7 (picketing outside of researcher’s private home, kidnapping of pets), Dkt. # 5 ¶¶ 7-8 (calling animal researchers “vile [expletive]Humans” by saying, “I will do whatever is necessary to end animal research.”

Due to the hostility IACUC members remain anonymous. They are currently identified only online by their initials. [the committee’s]Meeting minutes are publicly available.” Opponents of animal research want certain documents to end this anonymity from the university.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals … is an organization that seeks to “expos[e]To “ensure their end, the cruelty of animal testing” One year ago, PETA representatives made a request under Washington’s Public Records Act for public records. In particular, the representative sought the IACUC member’s “appointment correspondence.” These letters include personal information such as names, email addresses and department affiliations.

University of Washington plans to comply with the public records request. The University of Washington stated that the requested documents would be released tomorrow (February 25, 2022), unless the court enters a restraining order.

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 …. The Court is asked to stop the university disclosing any personal identifying information regarding any IACUC member, whether he or she is a current, former or alternate member, in response to any request for public records. The University of Washington does not oppose the motion….

The Court begins with the merits and finds that the Plaintiffs at most raised serious issues. Plaintiffs bring a First Amendment claim that their constitutional freedom to associate was violated. This claim must be proven that the plaintiffs (1) were involved in protected First Amendment activity, and (2) they would face “threats or harassment” that could result in a chilling effect.

This claim has been questioned by Plaintiffs. IACUC members are believed to have engaged in university-related research. This is considered expressive conduct as defined by the First Amendment. This record shows that the IACUC would not allow members to reveal their personal information without fear of reprisal, harassment or threats. Opponents of animal science have apparently occupied the private residence of University of Washington researchers.  Research opponents have stated they are “going to take all necessary steps to prevent animal research from happening.”  Researchers have had their animals taken by these opponents.

When it comes to balance of the interests and equities, the Court concludes that Plaintiffs have a strong case. The University of Washington’s research on animals is of interest to the public. However, the majority of information is already available to the public. IACUC meetings are public—indeed, they are on Zoom, allowing the public across the country to join.  Public members may speak at those meetings. Minutes of meetings are made available to the public. It is unclear what incremental information would be gained by the “appointment correspondences”. The letters will only provide the personal information of IACUC members and little to no insight into the nature of university research.

The legitimate fear of reprisal is a strong motivator to turn the tide. Service on IACUC is voluntary. IACUC helps to monitor research projects in order to make sure they are compliant with both state and federal laws. That research seeks to find cures for both human and animal disease. IACUC members often fear for their safety. Fear can affect their abilities to perform their jobs, causing them to resign or deterring potential future IACUC 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 anticipate PETA, or any other group of similar nature, will try to block the injunction if the University does not fight the preliminary one.