SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge will not force the government to post animal-welfare compliance records online, finding public interest does not trump the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s duty to protect private individual information.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge William Orrick III denied the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s motion for a preliminary injunction that would have forced the USDA to make documents previously removed from several animal-welfare government databases available for public inspection.
“The public’s interest in immediately accessing all Animal Welfare Act enforcement and compliance records is outweighed by the USDA’s interest in ensuring that these records do not improperly disclose private information. The balance of harms weighs against an injunction,” Orrick wrote.
The Animal Welfare Act requires the USDA to maintain public databases on inspections of businesses like animal-research facilities and animal breeders and exhibitors to make sure those businesses follow the minimum standards for humane treatment of animals.
The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a branch of the USDA, says it temporarily removed the data “as a precautionary measure” to protect individuals’ privacy. It claims that between 2012 and 2016, it has grown increasingly concerned about some of the information it was publicly posting, like names and addresses of certain businesses, some of which have subjected to harassment and death threats after publication of eventually discredited accounts of animal abuse.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund and three other groups sued the USDA in February, claiming its Feb. 3 decision to abruptly pull the data offline has obstructed their missions to fight animal cruelty and monitor government enforcement. It says that despite the department’s reposting of many annual inspection reports, many documents that were previously available still aren’t, and the lack of up-to-date information could affect their membership and donor goodwill.
Orrick said he didn’t believe the nonprofit would suffer irreparable harm, and that their concerns appear “largely resolved” since the USDA began putting larger entities’ inspection reports back online.
“Because plaintiffs’ advocacy focuses primarily on resolving current and future animal welfare violations, they will be able to continue pursuing these goals through access to the many new inspection reports available,” he wrote. “As plaintiffs now have access to many of the documents they have indicated are most crucial, and many of the remaining unposted documents are old and outdated reports, they have not demonstrated that they are likely to suffer irreparable harm through frustration of mission absent immediate access to all APHIS documents.”
The Department of Justice declined to comment Thursday.
Animal Legal Defense Fund said it is disappointed in Orrick’s ruling, as it believes the USDA is suppressing information about animal abuse.
“The USDA is withholding important information from the public regarding animals’ treatment at roadside zoos, puppy mills, research facilities and more. The organization intends to continue fighting for transparency because the public has a right to know when animals are abused at these facilities and when the USDA fails to do its job,” spokeswoman Natalia Lima said in an emailed statement.
The group’s executive director Stephen Wells added, “Numerous organizations, and even state laws, rely on the USDA online database of animal welfare reports to hold abusers accountable. We will continue to fight for all removed records to be reposted – to hold not only animal abusers accountable, but also ensure that the USDA inspectors are performing their duties to enforce animal protection laws.”