It’s no secret that academic institutions conduct a significant share of the world’s health research. It is also common knowledge that colleges and universities have a strong commitment to free speech and open dialogue. However, in the era of fake news, alternative facts and increasing division, are there limits? When does free speech cross the line and become harassment? Is a person or group free from blame if their speech contradicts established data or worse yet, leads to menacing acts or violence?
These questions will likely come up in the days and weeks ahead in response to a newly-launched PETA campaign targeting America’s seven National Primate Research Centers. Last week, the animal rights group placed a billboard near the Yerkes primate center. The billboard – shown above – openly accuses researchers who study animals of murder. As is almost always the case, PETA issued a press release to announce their new campaign. In doing so, they shared plans to place similar outdoor advertising near all of the primate centers. They then followed through on that promise…at least partially.
Scientists and staff at the University of Wisconsin learned this week that PETA is launching bus ads, similar in design to the Yerkes billboard campaign. The above photo, which was posted by PETA on Twitter, shows you what the bus (or buses) will look like. The university posted their response right away, on their web site focused on the use of animals in research.
This is not the first time that PETA has targeted UW researchers and staff in this way. Back in 2013, we told you about another billboard campaign targeting research on hear ing disorders taking place in cats. This blog post explains what that was all about and also provides information on the goals and achievements of the research in question.
Of course, things have changed significantly in the past five years. For instance, we know that at times, emotionally-charged misinformation campaigns can have serious consequences. For example, consider the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, the outrageous claim that a Washington D.C. pizzeria was the site of a child trafficking ring led by Hillary Clinton and John Podesta. In that case, the false story was spread via social media and far-right news websites and caused a North Carolina man to travel to the restaurant, where he opened fire with an assault weapon. Amazingly, no one was hurt.
Another example of the toxic power of misinformation campaigns is the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting conspiracy theory. In that case, Alex Jones of Infowars spread misinformation that the school shooting – which lead to the deaths of 26 people, most of whom were children – was a hoax. In response to the lies, those who had lost children or other family members have been harassed and taunted repeatedly for several years.
With all that in mind, here are a few questions worth considering:
- Should PETA’s ads be considered protected free speech?
- PETA’s ads claim there is “a better way.” However, in reality, there are many critical research areas where no non-animal alternatives exist. This means that PETA is not being truthful with the public. Therefore, do advertising companies have an obligation to prevent the spread of false information?
- Finally, how should public institutions react when faced with challenges like these?
Feel free to share your thoughts below in the comments section.