HOUSTON (CN) — Texas A&M University reached a settlement with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals on Monday, agreeing to remove filters from its Facebook page that PETA claimed violated its right to speak out against the school’s research on dogs.
PETA launched a campaign in 2016 to stop Texas A&M’s canine research lab from breeding golden retrievers predisposed to muscular dystrophy, after learning about the study from a whistleblower, who sent it photos and videos of disabled dogs.
The animal rights group helped two students launch a Change.org petition, eventually signed by more than 978,000 people, which claimed Texas A&M University veterinary professor Joe Kornegay had been studying muscular dystrophy in dogs for 30 years, stretching them with a lever until their muscles tear, without a breakthrough in his quest to find a cure for Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
Duchenne muscular dystrophy is a rare genetic disorder that affects boys starting at age 4.
PETA noticed in December 2017 that comments it tried to post on Texas A&M’s Facebook page about the dog research did not appear, which was unusual, as the university lets members of the public post messages there.
PETA brought a federal complaint in May 2018 on First Amendment grounds, claiming that through testing various comments it learned the school was filtering out and hiding posts containing the words PETA, Cruel, Abuse, Torture, MD, Shut, Close, Stop, Lab, Testing and Tests.
One staffer was able to post the message: ‘TAMU rules! Go Aggies,’” PETA said in the lawsuit. “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!’”
Texas A&M closed down the golden retriever breeding program in October 2019 at its College Station campus, one of the biggest research universities in the United States, with more than 68,000 students.
Looking to distance itself from the controversy, Texas A&M’s counsel with the Texas Attorney General’s Office signed a settlement Monday in which the public university agreed to “refrain from adding any settings in the future to block or filter, whether automatically or manually, PETA or its comments” from its Facebook page.
Texas A&M denied any wrongdoing in the settlement and retained the right to remove any of PETA’s posts that do not comply with its Facebook usage policy.
The school also agreed to pay $75,000 in attorneys’ fees to PETA’s counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation of San Francisco.
“We believe that we have found a way to move forward to end this litigation that demonstrates our university’s strong commitment to the First Amendment,” Texas A&M spokeswoman Amy Smith said in a statement. “We hope this can be of use to other universities dealing with complexities of the social media landscape.”
PETA attorney Gabe Walters told the Associated Press it will continue monitoring Texas A&M’s social media sites.
PETA agreed in the settlement not to bring any “facial” legal challenge of Texas A&M’s Facebook policies for 18 months, nor any “as-applied” challenge for three months.