Precedent-setting lawsuit?  IACUC members file lawsuit to seek protection

UPDATE: May 17, 2022: A federal judge has granted the IACUC members a preliminary injunction to ensure their safety. Read more here.

February 24th 2022

In the face of escalating harassment, hostility, and anger from anti-animal research groups, members of the University of Washington Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee have filed a lawsuit seeking protection from the university. The lawsuit was announced in a press release issued today by the National Association of Biomedical Research and Americans for Medical Progress and titled: “Five UW IACUC Members Seek Protection; Fear for Their Families’ Safety in the Face of Escalating Harassment, Hostility and Anger by Those Opposed to Animal Studies.” 

In the US, part of the regulatory and oversight system for animal research includes institutional animal care and use committees (IACUCs). The IACUC has a number of roles, including approving detailed protocols for animal studies, inspection of facilities, and investigation of adverse events. The functioning of local IACUCs is subject to evaluation by external agencies and groups. In public institutions the records and meetings of IACUCs are often–depending on state law–also accessible to members of the public via state level open meetings and open records statutes. As a result, some IACUCs have found themselves to be the target of individuals and groups opposed to animal research. The University of Washington is one example. As described in the press release, IACUC members have been subjected to hostile/menacing comments that include comparisons to “Nazis” and description of research facilities as “Auschwitz.” Further, “threatening emails, letters and voice messages to university staff …. have, among other things, referred to health researchers who work with animals as ‘vile [expletive] humans’ adding ‘I’m going to do what is necessary to stop animal research.’” (For more detail, please read the NABR/AMP press release.)

The IACUC members seeking protection “are asking the court to block attempts by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to obtain their identities and also the names of more than 70 of their fellow colleagues who either currently serve or have served on the University of Washington IACUC committee.”

Why are they asking for their names to be withheld? Paula Clifford, Executive Director of the biomedical research advocacy group Americans for Medical Progress, explains:

“There’s only one reason a person or group would seek out the names of individual IACUC members tasked with ensuring the humane treatment of research animals: To generate fear and anxiety…And while these safety threats have not simply come from one individual person or group, we mustn’t forget that in this particular case, the organization seeking this information already has a history of targeting individuals and their neighbors at home.”

At Speaking of Research we have repeatedly emphasized that institutions have a moral obligation to support their animal research programs, and to defend the scientists involved against attacks that deliberately misrepresent  scientists and their research. It should go without saying that this support extends to ensuring that the committees charged with local oversight of animal research can do so without fear for their families and in absence of harassment.

We agree with National Association for Biomedical Research president Matthew R. Bailey that interference with IACUC function is not the way to ensure thoughtful and serious ethical consideration of animal research. Bailey says:

“University of Washington IACUC members should be able to perform their duties without fear of harassment or threats. There has been a long and despicable history of harassment and intimidation tactics committed against employees of institutions who engage in humane and ethical animal research. IACUC members and researchers who work with animal models are as deeply committed to animal care as they are to advancing life-saving research. NABR supports the exemption of personal identifying information in open records laws precisely because of such targeting. Instead of painting a target on the backs of IACUC members and researchers, we should support their efforts to improve the lives of both humans and animals alike.”

Speaking of Research