Ruling on PETA v. OHSU Public Records Lawsuit

Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Andrew M. Lavin issued a ruling on July 6, 2022, in the PETA v. Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) public records lawsuit. Once again, PETA used this opportunity to misrepresent the actual court documents and rulings, misleading the public.

First, some important background:

The U.S. legal system ensures a basic level of transparency in publicly-funded animal-based research, including: regulatory oversight by federal agencies and research institutions, in combination with the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA),state-level open meetings, and records statutes (see table below). This system allows any interested stakeholder– in the U.S. and other countries– to obtain detailed information about animal research conducted at US public institutions, including federal institutions with research facilities. Anti-animal research groups like PETA are known to abuse FOIA, using the information obtained from these requests to write misleading press releases, request investigations, and call for an end to specific research programs at many federal agencies and public institutions.  

Thus, it is unsurprising that PETA used these same tactics in their public records lawsuit against OHSU. PETA claimed that OHSU violated Oregon Public Records Law, though Judge Lavin made no such declaration. Rather, the court ruled that OHSU delayed disclosing the records PETA sued for. The details of the ruling are found in OHSU’s press release yesterday

Key points from the OHSU statement include:

  • “In its July 6, 2022 rulings, the court did not declare that OHSU violated Oregon Public Records Law; rather, it ruled that OHSU unreasonably delayed disclosing the videos and photographs responsive to PETA’s 2018 requests and, as a result, that PETA is entitled to $400 in statutory penalties ($200 on each public records claim) plus reasonable attorney’s fees and costs on those two claims alone.
  • OHSU acknowledges and regrets the delay in disclosure. We have a comprehensive process in place for complying with our obligations under Oregon Public Records Law, and we are continually reviewing that process to identify opportunities for improvement.
  • With regard to PETA’s two claims that OHSU violated PETA’s free speech, equal protection and privileges and immunities rights, in OHSU’s processing of, and responding to, PETA’s 2018 public records requests, the court explicitly found for OHSU and denied any relief to PETA it had sought on those claims. OHSU does not discriminate amongst public records requestors.
  • Regarding PETA’s allegation that OHSU Public Safety unlawfully surveilled PETA through receipt of emails from organizations who advocate for animal research, the court declared OHSU Public Safety in violation of the relevant law (ORS 181A.250) and ordered OHSU Public Safety to delete all INA (Information Network Associates) and AMP (Americans for Medical Progress) emails from their electronic records if those emails do not relate to a criminal investigation.
  • Some members of the OHSU Public Safety team previously were included on an email distribution list for INA and AMP newsletters, which contain publicly available information about anti-animal research public protests and statements — including statements about OHSU — for the purpose of staying abreast of potential impacts to OHSU operations, and to help employees be aware of potential threats and disruptions.
  • OHSU Public Safety stopped subscribing to these or any similar distribution lists in early 2022.”

In contrast to what actually happened, PETA reports on its website, “Judge rules OHSU violates open records law,” claiming a “big loss for experimenters.” Why this blatant discrepancy? Why is PETA intentionally misleading the public? Perhaps it has something to do with their closing lines, in which they pivot to pleas for support to end primate research at OHSU. This is odd, since this case was about research records involving prairie voles. 

What does this all mean?

Foremost, the case illustrates–once again–that open records and freedom of information laws in the US provide anyone with access to a great deal of information about public institutions, including those engaged in scientific research. Although well-known to those in the US, the degree of transparency and mechanisms to ensure it vary from country to country. We’ve written about this previously, encouraging all those advocating for openness and transparency to begin with an accurate picture of what is already in place. Yesterday’s ruling provides yet another example of an institution’s work to respond to public requests for information. 

Second, the case illustrates how the open records system is regularly used by groups opposed to animal research. This case is one of many that PETA and other anti-animal research groups have lobbied in efforts to sway public views.  

Source: Speaking of Research

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