Challenging the Government’s Censorship of Animal Advocates’ Speech on Social Media
PETA v. Collins
The Animal Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit on behalf of animal advocates who’ve been prevented from posting critical comments regarding animal experimentation on the Health and Human Services (HHS) otherwise public social media pages. The HHS is primarily charged with funding and promoting research on animals.
In September 2021, the Animal Legal Defense Fund and coalition partners filed a lawsuit against the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) over their censorship of critical comments concerning testing on animals on their official Facebook and Instagram accounts.
The NIH and HHS use keyword-blocking tools to automatically hide user comments that surface the use of nonhuman primates and other animals in research. Words blocked from appearing on the NIH’s social media pages include “animal,” “primate,” “monkey,” “chimpanzee,” “cats,” “mice,” “cruel,” and “experiment,” and blocked hashtags include “#StopAnimalTesting.” The HHS’ social media accounts also block comments containing the word “monkey.”
The Animal Legal Defense Fund alleges that the government’s keyword blocking imposes a viewpoint-based burden that prevents animal advocates from meaningfully adding to or engaging with the public discourse on these government-run social media channels. Because the government’s censorship targets people who hold a particular point of view — an opposition to animal testing — the lawsuit argues that the government is violating these speakers’ First Amendment rights by hiding their speech on this topic. Not only do the government’s actions in this case violate plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights, but they also prevent the public from being able to read and engage with other users whose comments may be hidden because they contain blocked keywords — a burden on the public’s ability to hear others’ speech.
Multiple courts have held that government-run social media accounts that allow users to comment and engage with others’ comments and contributions on government accounts are considered “public forums” akin to a town hall or meeting. The lawsuit seeks to stop the NIH and HHS from blocking comments based on their anti-animal-testing views.
In addition to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the coalition that filed the lawsuit includes the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
Who is being sued, why, and under what law? The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), for violating the plaintiffs’ constitutionally protected right to free speech.
What court is the lawsuit filed in? The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Why is this case is important? Animals used in research have few protections under the law; indeed, most animals in U.S. laboratories effectively have no legal protections at all. Research facilities operate without sufficient oversight into their animal-care procedures, and the public is given little to no information concerning the way these animals are treated. The voices of animal advocates are a critical part of the public discourse about animal experimentation.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund works to protect animals from inhumane treatment and safeguard the rights of those who advocate on their behalf or speak out about abuse. The NIH and HHS are infringing on the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights by denying them the opportunity to engage in protected speech on a government-run public forum.