WASHINGTON—A district court ruled late last week that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) did not violate the First Amendment by using keyword blocking tools on its social media accounts to suppress speech related to animal advocacy. This decision follows a lawsuit brought by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and the Animal Legal Defense Fund arguing that the NIH’s actions amounted to online censorship of speech critical of the agency’s role in animal testing.

“We’re disappointed that the court ruled in favor of a government agency that was clearly using keyword blocking to censor critical comments on its official social media accounts,” said Stephanie Krent, a staff attorney with the Knight First Amendment Institute. “The government cannot be permitted to distort public debate on important political issues like animal testing, and we will be appealing the court’s decision.”

The NIH admitted that it blocks keywords associated with animal advocacy from appearing in comments on its Facebook page and Instagram account. Through keyword blocking, the NIH automatically hides all comments containing words like "torture," "testing," "animal," "monkey," and "primate." The NIH used to suppress comments mentioning "PETA" or using the hashtag #stopanimaltesting, but it ended that practice in late 2021 after this lawsuit was filed.

“This unfortunate decision green lights the NIH’s blatant attempt to cut off crucial dialogue about taxpayer-funded animal exploitation,” said PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo. “Government social media pages should be forums for vibrant public debate, not anti-animal echo chambers. We look forward to vindicating our First Amendment rights on appeal.”

In addition to PETA, plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Madeline Krasno, a former animal research lab technician turned animal advocate, and Ryan Hartkopf, an engineer in the digital health field. They have had comments hidden by the agency’s keyword blocking practice on numerous occasions, making it far more difficult for them to communicate their message on these platforms, to raise public awareness of animal testing practices, and to hear the speech of others who want to discuss animal testing.

“The court’s ruling is a disappointing decision that opens the door to continued government censorship on social media,” said Animal Legal Defense Fund Managing Attorney Christopher Berry. “We will continue to fight for the right to speak publicly against all means of animal exploitation and testing—a right guaranteed by the First Amendment.”

Read the decision here.

Read more about the lawsuit here.

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 then-President Trump could not block users from his @realDonaldTrump account because “he disagree[d] with their speech.” In April 2021, after Trump was no longer president, 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.

Lawyers on the case include, in addition to Krent, Jameel Jaffer, Katie Fallow, and Alexia Ramirez of the Knight Institute; Caitlin M. Foley and Christopher A. Berry of ALDF; and Jeff Stein and Asher Smith of PETA.

For more information, contact Adriana Lamirande, Knight First Amendment Institute, [email protected].