The Biden Administration is violating the First Amendment by suppressing comments that contain keywords associated with criticism of animal experimentation -- including “mouse,” “test,” and “cruel” -- on government-run Facebook and Instagram pages, animal rights' activists say in a new lawsuit.
The administration's “viewpoint-discriminatory and content-based suppression of comments about animal testing violates plaintiffs’ right to speak in a public forum,” the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, Madeline Krasno and Ryan Hartkopf allege in a complaint filed Thursday in federal court in Washington, D.C.
The groups are being represented by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which previously sued former President Donald Trump for blocking critics on Twitter.
The complaint alleges that the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Health and Human Services use automated filters to hide comments that might express criticism of animal testing. Those filters automatically suppress comments that contain words and phrases such as #stopanimaltesting, monkey, mouse, and PETA, according to the complaint.
“Defendants’ practice of hiding comments containing words associated with animal rights advocacy, including the name of a well-known animal rights organization, is a viewpoint-discriminatory and content-based restriction on speech that infringes plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights,” the lawsuit alleges. “It violates plaintiffs’ right to speak in a public forum and their right to read the speech of others who have used blocked keywords in comments on defendants’ social media pages.”
The complaint notes that some activists have found a workaround -- such as changing the spelling or spacing of words that trigger the filters.
For instance, one PETA employee was able to publicly post a comment that substituted the words “an1mals” for “animals,” and “expts” for “experiments.”
The lawsuit comes as right-wing politicians are increasingly claiming their First Amendment rights are being violated when their speech is suppressed by social media companies. Most prominently, Trump is currently suing Facebook, Twitter and YouTube on the theory that the companies violated his free speech rights by banning his account.
Trump's lawsuit is almost certain to fail, because the First Amendment doesn't prohibit private companies from deciding what speech to publish.
By contrast, the lawsuit by PETA and the others alleges censorship by the government, which is directly banned by the First Amendment.
The animal rights activists are seeking a declaration that the keyword blocks are unconstitutional, and a court order requiring the agencies to remove the filters.