New front in animal rights war

A recent legal dispute between the University of South Dakota and an animal rights group represents a new front to the battle between scientists and animal rights groups: state open records laws. Image: Wikimedia CommonsAsociacion Animalista Libera!Specifically, activists have turned to state open records laws to obtain information about biomedical research happening at state institutions. "In addition to the federal [Freedom of Information Act], animal rights groups are also using state open

Apr 21, 2010
Bob Grant
A recent legal dispute between the University of South Dakota and an animal rights group represents a new front to the battle between scientists and animal rights groups: state open records laws.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Asociacion Animalista Libera!
Specifically, activists have turned to state open records laws to obtain information about biomedical research happening at state institutions. "In addition to the federal [Freedom of Information Act], animal rights groups are also using state open records laws," linkurl:Frankie Trull,;http://www.nabr.org/about-nabr/ask-frankie.aspx president of the National Association for Biomedical Research, told __The Scientist__. "[Animal rights activists] have done this all over the country." The fear, said Trull, is that activists will distribute information in a way that invites violence or harassment of scientists who conduct animal research. "The question is, 'What are you going to do with the information?'" she asked. "If the intention on receiving the information was pure, there wouldn't be a problem at all. But if the information about you or your research is FOIAed and you get some threatening emails, it's not so good anymore." Although open records laws vary widely from state to state, most allow for the release of information held at state agencies and institutions, such as universities, unless that information compromises intellectual property rights or pertains to students or other minors. This particular battle includes University of South Dakota (USD) neuroscientist linkurl:Robert Morecraft;http://people.usd.edu/~rmorecra/ and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Morecraft's research uses non-human primates to identify brain areas that help human patients recover movement after brain trauma and to map brain areas that contribute to dystonia, a neurological disorder that causes inadvertent contortion or repetitive muscular motions. After PETA requested access to information about Morecraft's work, the USD and the South Dakota board of regents (in consultation with Morecraft) refused to release some material, based on exemptions written into the state's open records law. "We don't release information that's not been peer-reviewed and information that's proprietary unless it's protected by a patent," said linkurl:Laura Jenski,;http://www.usd.edu/research/research-and-sponsored-programs/contact-us.cfm USD's vice president for research. Jenski said that PETA asked for details of Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) protocols -- forms drafted for all research using animals -- which contained "information that was not yet published or that would be proprietary in nature." Jenski added that USD did agree to provide some information, redacting personal information and unpublished or proprietary data, to PETA. "I certainly am aware of newspaper articles, journal articles and other reports on the internet where there have been cases of harassment," she said. "However our response to PETA was based on our state law and what it exempts and what it does not exempt." Morecraft, who is currently funded by several USDA and NIH grants, told __The Scientist__ that his research has not been interrupted by PETA's request or the ensuing legal maneuvering. "We need to keep our work going so we can help people with brain injury, he said. "That's our motivating factor." Lori Kettler, senior counsel for PETA, told __The Scientist__ that her group has indeed been turning to state open records laws and lawsuits for alleged violations of those laws as a new tactic to get information about researchers and their work. But she said that the impetus for that strategic shift was state and federal agencies increasingly clamping down on that information. "The new trend is that it's getting more difficult to get the records," she said. "What's different now is that the facilities are putting a little more effort into not releasing the records." PETA first requested information about Morecraft's research under South Dakota state open records laws in 2008, after he and USD were cited for violating the Animal Welfare Act by not providing adequate psychological enrichment and for housing animals singly rather than in pairs or groups. PETA formally requested that the school make Morecraft's experimental protocol, along with videos and photos of his research, available. When USD denied parts of the request, PETA tried to take the issue to court, but the state denied a courtroom trial. So PETA tried again, filing another request for information on Morecraft's research in July of last year. Again the university denied PETA some of the information it requested. PETA tried to linkurl:file suit;http://www.plaintalk.net/cms/news/story-167159.html again against USD last month. "Essentially, they're claiming that we have violated the open records laws in the state of South Dakota," said Jenski. PETA eventually withdrew its suit because of problems with the way the school was served with notice of the litigation. "Rather than go though the expense and time of arguing that point out," Kettler said, "we decided to voluntarily dismiss and reassess where we go from here." Kettler added that in the past year, PETA has filed "dozens and dozens" of similar requests for information under state open records laws. "Often we don't get what we feel we're entitled to under the law[s]." State open records laws can be quite complicated and can vary widely from state to state, said Jim Shekleton, South Dakota Board of Regents legal counsel. He suggested that if researchers are sent requests for information, they should consult their institution's legal minds right away. "When you open the mail and find this, the next step would be to the general counsel's office," he told __The Scientist__. "You do need to have someone look at this carefully." Kettler contended that PETA had no intention of inviting harm or intimidation on Morecraft by requesting information about his research. "We clearly have the name of the researcher involved," she said. Kettler added that the fear that making such information public would encourage harassment or violence in other states is unfounded. Still, Trull urged caution when researchers are faced with requests for information about their animal research. "I think [researchers] have to be cautious within the letter of the law," she said. "Over time we'll see more of this strategy."
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Tips to safely provide records;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/56276/
[15th January 2010]*linkurl:An Odyssey with Animals;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/56201/
[4th December 2009]*linkurl:A Legal Challenge to Animal Research;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/56167/
[December 2009]*linkurl:Animal rights activists charged;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/55651/
[21st April 2009]