Houston, Texas—The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) sued Texas A&M University on behalf of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) for blocking comments on its official Facebook page that mention PETA by name or use certain words to criticize the university’s use of dogs in muscular dystrophy experiments.
The school, the nation’s second-largest public university by student enrollment, won’t publish any post containing the animal rights group’s name, or posts containing at least 11 words, including “cruelty,” “abuse,” “torture,” “lab,” “testing,” and “shut.” The censorship started after PETA began an advocacy campaign against Texas A&M for a medical research lab studying muscular dystrophy in dogs for the purposes of finding a cure for the human version of the disease. The lab breeds golden retrievers to develop the illness, and subjects the dogs to cruel and inhuman treatment, PETA maintains. The organization uses social media, including Facebook, to publicize its campaign.
The Facebook page of Texas A&M contains information about its educational, medical research, and sports programs, as well as its students and community members. Anyone on Facebook who visits the site is invited to “write something on this page,” comment on posts, and reply to posts by the university or visitors to the page. Posts and comments aren’t confined to university affairs—topics range from animal welfare and the environment to sexual awareness and the weather.
In a complaint filed today in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, PETA maintains that the Texas A&M Facebook page is a government-controlled forum for speech that, under the First Amendment, can’t exclude speech based on the speaker’s expressed viewpoint. That the term “PETA”—and words frequently used in the group’s anti-cruelty campaign against the school’s dog lab—are blocked demonstrates the university’s intent to silence PETA and others opposed to animal testing from expressing their views in the Facebook forum.
“Speaker-based and viewpoint-based discrimination of speech in a designated public forum like the university’s Facebook page is rarely permitted under the First Amendment,” said EFF Civil Liberties Director David Greene. "We are asking a judge to declare that Texas A&M’s restrictions against PETA on its Facebook page are unconstitutional and require the university to repost PETA’s content on the site and stop blocking PETA from posting and commenting on the site.”
EFF has taken a stand for the First Amendment rights of individuals and groups to receive and comment on social media posts used government to conduct the work of government. When federal, state, and local agencies and elected officials—even the president—use social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to communicate directly with the public about programs, policies, and opinions, the First Amendment sharply restricts the government’s ability to prevent us from receiving and commenting on those communications.
“Our First Amendment rights are infringed when agencies and officials block the posts they don’t like or agree with,” said Greene. “And the rights of all readers are affected when the government manipulates it social media pages to make it appear that its policies and practices are embraced, rather than condemned.”
For the complaint:
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