HOUSTON (CN) — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals took Texas A&M University to federal court Monday, seeking an injunction to stop what it calls social media censorship of its campaign against the school’s research on dogs bred to develop muscular dystrophy.
Represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, PETA claims Texas A&M is violating its First Amendment right to post comments on a public forum — the Aggies’ Facebook page.
PETA launched a campaign in 2016 to stop Texas A&M’s canine research lab from breeding golden retrievers predisposed for muscular dystrophy, after learning about the study from a whistleblower, who sent it photos and videos of disabled dogs in the lab.
“Social media is a critical tool in PETA’s advocacy campaigns,” the complaint states. “PETA helps students craft petitions to end TAMU’s animal cruelty on Change.org, livestreams protests over Twitter, and alerts its Facebook followers of corporations that sponsor TAMU’s dog lab.”
A Change.org petition sponsored by two Texas A&M students, which had garnered more than 500,000 signatures by Monday night, claims that that Texas A&M veterinary professor Joe Kornegay leads the research. Kornegay is not a defendant; the only defendant is Texas A&M President Michael K. Young, in his official capacity.
The online petition says Kornegay is focused on finding a cure for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, DMD, a rare genetic disorder that affects boys starting at age 4, and makes their muscles progressively weaker. The disorder is rarely seen in women.
The Change.org petition claims that although Kornegay has been studying muscular dystrophy in dogs for 30 years, his research has not led to any medical breakthroughs and he tortures dogs, stretching them with a lever until their muscles tear.
A Texas A&M spokeswoman defended Kornegay’s research in an October 2017 interview with Fox News.
“While DMD occurs in nature in both children and dogs, the disease is not as severe in dogs, which means dogs offer a unique opportunity to learn as much as possible, thereby helping all affected by DMD,” spokeswoman Amy Smith told Fox.
Texas A&M’s College Station campus is one of the biggest research universities in the United States, and with more than 68,000 students it ranks No. 1 in enrollment for all U.S. public universities.
Its faculty regularly posts information about their research on its Facebook page.
PETA says in its 24-page lawsuit that it noticed last December that comments it tried to post on Texas A&M’s Facebook page about the dog research did not appear on the page, which was unusual, as the university lets members of the public post messages there.
PETA claims that Texas A&M uses a Facebook filtering tool by which page administrators can create a list of blocked words, and if any of the words appear in a post, then the entire post is hidden from public view.
“PETA staff used the standard visitor interface to test various posts on TAMU’s Facebook page and thus determine what content would result in the post being hidden from public view,” the complaint states.
“One staffer was able to post the message: ‘TAMU rules! Go Aggies.’ However, using the same account, she was not able to post the message: ‘Shut the cruel Muscular Dystrophy dog lab down NOW! This is torture!’”
PETA says that by testing various comments it learned that Texas A&M hides posts containing these words: PETA, Cruel, Abuse, Torture, MD, Shut, Close, Stop, Lab, Testing, (and) Tests.
PETA, a Virginia-based nonprofit with more than 6.5 million members, claims Texas A&M’s censorship is not confined to Facebook. It says the university rejected its requests to run ads against the dog research on campus buses and in the school newspaper.
Claiming the censorship is not narrowly tailored to a compelling government interest, a standard for state institutions to overcome First Amendment claims, PETA seeks a declaration that Texas A&M is violating its constitutional rights, and an injunction ordering Texas A&M to post all PETA’s comments and stop blocking them.
“Our First Amendment rights are infringed when agencies and officials block the posts they don’t like or agree with,” Electronic Frontier Foundation civil liberties director David Greene said in a statement. “And the rights of all readers are affected when the government manipulates its social media pages to make it appear that its policies and practices are embraced, rather than condemned.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, based in San Francisco, is a nonprofit advocate for digital free speech and privacy rights.
A Texas A&M spokeswoman said it will retain counsel and “vigorously defend” itself against the lawsuit.
Amy B. Smith, the university’s chief communications officer, also defended its treatment of PETA on Facebook.
“Texas A&M has taken reasonable steps to manage the University Facebook account in light of online attacks on our platform organized and encouraged by PETA. We have taken these steps only after these attacks of PETA and its supporters became so extreme that they significantly interfered with University business, the ability of our communications employees to perform their duties and the ability of others members of the Texas A&M community to have meaningful access to our Facebook platform,” she said in a statement.
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