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Animal Rights Advocates Say NIH Blocks Critical Comments on Social Media

The plaintiffs argue that the agency and the Health and Human Services Department are practicing “viewpoint discrimination.”

Animal rights advocates filed a lawsuit on Thursday against two federal health agencies alleging they block certain critical comments on their social media accounts. 

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and two individuals, represented by The Knight First Amendment Institute and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, respectively, filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the National Institutes of Health and Human Services Department regarding their use of Facebook and Instagram. NIH is part of HHS. 

“Plaintiffs are animal rights advocates, including an animal rights organization, who

believe that the government’s continued support of primate testing is unconscionable,” said the complaint. “They have attempted to raise these concerns by commenting on the NIH’s Facebook and Instagram pages, but the NIH routinely hides plaintiffs’ comments from public view by using keyword blocking tools to prevent certain words and phrases associated with disfavored viewpoints, content, or speakers—like ‘PETA’ and ‘#stopanimaltesting’—from appearing on its social media pages.”

Stephanie Krent, a staff attorney with the Knight First Amendment Institute, told Government Executive on Friday, “this suit has been in the works for quite some time” as “it was late last year that PETA employees really first began to notice that several of the comments they were attempting to post, in particular on the Facebook page of the National Institutes of Health were for some reason not actually being posted” and they weren’t being notified that the comment didn’t go through. 

The issue was also noticed by two individuals. In order to confirm his suspicions, one of them, Ryan Hartkopf, filed a Freedom of Information Act request in April 2021 seeking “a screenshot of all keywords that are blocked” on the NIH’s Facebook and Instagram accounts.

Several days later he “received the records responsive to his FOIA request and confirmed that the NIH was engaged in extensive keyword blocking to hide comments relating to animal rights advocacy,” said the complaint. 

In addition, HHS blocks comments containing the word “monkey,” said the complaint. 

“Although there was no FOIA request for HHS it became clear, especially when PETA employees were attempting to post, that HHS had blocked the word ‘monkey,’” said Krent. “The central issue that our clients have been focusing on is the issue of primate research and especially our government’s role in funding and supporting that research, so to be unable to refer to the animals that are being tested on is a huge barrier to them being able to communicate their views especially in the public forum.”

NIH said it "does not comment on pending litigation." HHS did not respond for comment.

The complaint cites previous cases in which courts held that government-run social media accounts should be open forums for public comments. The plaintiffs argue that this constitutes viewpoint discrimination and they want the court to order the agencies to remove the keyword filters. 

PETA previously sued NIH in May for “repeatedly failing to respond to our requests to release documents on taxpayer-funded experiments conducted in its laboratories,” said a press release on Thursday. “Government agencies should not be suppressing the public’s right to speak up about their practices.” The lawsuit is pending. 

This article has been updated with comment from NIH.

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