Image by Giovanni Calia on Unsplash
An animal rights non-profit has filed a lawsuit against the University of Wisconsin – Madison for allegedly censoring a former employee online. The lawsuit is part of a quickly-growing area of First Amendment case law that sets boundaries for how governmental entities can interact on social media.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court last week, alleges that in the fall of 2020, UW Madison began hiding comments that were critical of the University’s animal research practices on its Facebook and Instagram pages.
Those comments were made by Madeline Krasno, who attended UW-Madison as an undergraduate. Back in 2013, Krasno worked as a caregiver at the Harlow Center, which uses primates for behavioral research. Krasno claims that during her time as a caregiver, she witnessed cruelty against the monkeys she cared for.
She says she saw newborns separated from their mothers and had one newborn die in her hands due to a seizure.
In a Q&A with followers on her Instagram account, Krasno described another one of these encounters.
“There was one monkey there who had a headcap, which means that they had drilled a hole into his skull and fit a cap on his head,” she said.
Krasno also described the day to day life of the monkeys as like a prison, living in isolated cages all day between research.
“It’s their whole life, their whole existence is sitting in this tiny square,” she said
The Animal Legal Defense Fund, or ALDF, is a non-profit organization that aims to protect the lives and advance the interests of animals through the legal system. They filed the lawsuit on behalf of Krasno one week ago on February 10 in the US District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin.
Christopher Berry is a managing attorney at the ALDF. He alleges that UW-Madison blocked Krasno’s comments, which were critical of the university, through a process called shadowbanning.
“They [the commentator] can see their own comment, but nobody else can see the comments at all,” he explained. “So as far as they know, they are speaking to the public on an issue – animal welfare, animal protection – but nobody is seeing that.”
Berry says the ALDF’s request is simple – to allow Krasno to exercise her first amendment right to speak on the animal research occurring at UW.
“It’s an incredibly modest relief but at the same time extremely important that her civil, constitutional rights in this country are respected by the University and that she’s not silenced just because the University doesn’t like her criticism of their treatment of primates,” he said.
WORT reached out to UW Madison for a statement on the lawsuit, but a UW spokesperson declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.
Berry says UW lawyers have several weeks to respond. If the case is not dismissed, it would move to discovery, where the ALDF would try to get the university to admit it did block Krasno from interacting with the public on social media.
This is not the first time the Harlow Center and UW Madison have attracted controversy for their treatment of animals in research.
In 2020, the US Department of Agriculture found UW Madison violated federal animal research treatment standards 28 times — which netted a fine of $74,0000.
Before that, in 2014, the University had to fork over $35,000 for animal rights violations.
Berry said their lawsuit shows the University is unwilling to address these issues.
“Rather than taking care of its animals – stopping the torture, stopping the inhumane treatment of primates – instead, the University is pivoting towards silencing and censoring critics of their treatment of primates which completely shocks the conscious in my view,” he said.
While based on First Amendment rights, the precedent for the case against UW-Madison is new to the digital age.
Jeff Scott Olson is civil rights lawyer in Madison, and a member of the First Amendment Lawyers Association.
Olson referred to a case from 2020 found that president Trump unlawfully censored citizens by removing comments in response to his Twitter posts. Through the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, state government agencies like UW Madison also cannot censor public comments online
“If they are [the University] censoring content because they don’t like the message, they’re gonna be in the same boat as President Trump, and he was enjoined by the court from censoring his Twitter account,” he said.
That First Amendment jurisprudence has also come up with government officials closer to home. Two years ago, a federal judge ruled that Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and two other Republican lawmakers had acted unconstitutionally when they blocked liberal group One Wisconsin Now on Twitter. The Wisconsin State Journal reports that lawyers for the lawmakers cost $200,000.in taxpayer money.