WASHINGTON—The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) asked a federal court today to stop the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from censoring comments critical of animal testing from its Facebook and Instagram accounts. The NIH has conceded that it blocks keywords associated with animal advocacy from appearing in comments on its Facebook page and Instagram account. Today’s motion argues that this practice is unconstitutional and asks the court to decide the case in favor of PETA and the individual advocates who brought the case.

“A bedrock principle of the First Amendment is that the government can’t silence its critics because it doesn’t like what they have to say,” said Stephanie Krent, a staff attorney with the Knight First Amendment Institute. “The NIH has opened parts of its Facebook page and Instagram account for public discourse, but it suppresses speech critical of the agency’s involvement in animal testing. Numerous courts have held that viewpoint discrimination is not permissible in digital public forums, and this court should follow suit.”

After this lawsuit was filed in September 2021, the NIH stopped blocking comments mentioning PETA or using the hashtag #stopanimaltesting. But in a joint stipulation filed in February, the agency admitted that it still blocks comments containing words commonly used by animal advocates, including “torture,” “testing,” “animal,” “monkey,” and “primate.” The plaintiffs assert that the agency’s practice of suppressing animal advocacy violates the First Amendment.

“Blocking words such as ‘monkey,’ ‘torture’ and ‘animal testing’—while allowing comments on all other topics—is clearly meant to preempt public discussion about the NIH’s use of animals in experiments,” said PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo. “The NIH is responsible to the public that funds it and should be fostering dialogue, not suppressing it.”

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.

“We live in a digital age, where social media has become a primary platform for people to review, engage with, and respond to information,” said Animal Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Stephen Wells. “When government agencies silence critics of animal testing and stifle discourse, it can only perpetuate unpopular policies that keep animals in laboratories and leave the public underinformed.”

Read today’s motion for summary judgment 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.” Last 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.

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

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