WASHINGTON — The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit today seeking to stop the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) from unconstitutionally blocking comments containing keywords associated with viewpoints critical of animal testing from the agencies’ social media pages. The suit was filed on behalf of animal rights advocates, including PETA and two individuals, whose comments criticizing the agencies’ role in primate studies were blocked from appearing on at least one agency’s social media pages. The plaintiffs assert that this practice violates the First Amendment and are asking the court to require the agencies to remove the keyword filters.

“Preemptively blocking comments containing words like ‘monkey,’ ‘cat,’ ‘torture,’ and ‘stop’ not only prevents PETA and others from advocating against the mistreatment of animals, it cuts off critical public dialogue on issues affecting all of us,”said PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo. “The government should be fostering public conversations–not hiding behind automatic filters.”

As today’s complaint explains, after attempting to communicate their views on animal testing on the NIH’s social media pages, the plaintiffs discovered through a Freedom of Information request that the NIH uses keyword filters that block numerous words and phrases associated with animal rights advocacy, including “animal(s),” “chimpanzee(s),” “monkey(s),” “cats,” “mouse,” “experiment,” “testing,” “PETA,” “torture,” and “revolting.” The automatic filters have hidden many of the plaintiffs’ comments criticizing the government’s treatment of animals, and have prevented them from contributing to public discourse on medical research, science, and bioethics. PETA also discovered that the HHS blocks all comments containing the term “monkey” after its employees attempted to communicate on the HHS’s Facebook page.

“Multiple courts have recognized that government-run social media accounts that are open for public comments are public forums under the First Amendment, and that the government cannot discriminate in these digital spaces based on viewpoint,” said Stephanie Krent, a staff attorney with the Knight First Amendment Institute. “The First Amendment protects people’s right to express their views in public forums, including views that are critical of the government’s own positions and practices.”

Plaintiffs in today’s case include, in addition to PETA, Madeline Krasno, a former animal research lab technician turned animal advocate, and Ryan Hartkopf, an engineer in the digital health field. They have had their comments to the NIH’s Facebook or Instagram pages hidden because they were critical of, or contained keywords associated with criticism of, the government’s role in animal testing.

“Stifling public debate over the controversial issue of animal testing prevents animal cruelty and wasted tax dollars from coming to light,” said Animal Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Stephen Wells. “The Animal Legal Defense Fund will continue to challenge First Amendment violations across the country that conceal animal cruelty from the public.”

The U.S. Courts of Appeals for both the Second and Fourth Circuits have held that public officials who block people from their official social media accounts based on viewpoint are violating the First Amendment. In Knight Institute v. Trump, the Second Circuit held that President Trump could not block users from his @realDonaldTrump account because “he disagree[d] with their speech.” Earlier this year, the Supreme Court found the case to be moot and vacated the Second Circuit decision on that basis, without addressing the merits. Read more about that case here.

Read today’s complaint here.

Lawyers on the case include, in addition to Krent, Jameel Jaffer, Katie Fallow, and Lyndsey Wajert of the Knight Institute; Caitlin Foley of ALDF; and Asher Smith of PETA.

For more information, contact: Lorraine Kenny, communications director, [email protected]