Court rules OHSU withheld records, spied on animal rights group
A court has determined Oregon Health & Science University withheld public records and illegally surveilled an animal rights activist organization.
The ruling came late Wednesday, July 6, from Multnomah County Circuit Judge Andrew Lavin, following a jury trial stemming from a 2020 lawsuit filed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA.)
PETA sued OHSU in April 2020 after OHSU failed to release records of its federally-funded animal experiments on intoxicated prairie voles in a timely manner. As previously reported by Pamplin Media Group, OHSU conducted a study on infidelity and partner choice that involved giving alcohol to the small rodents and recording their behavior. Findings from the study, conducted by behavioral neuroscience professor Andrey Ryabinin and Andre Walcott, were published in 2017. The study was funded by two National Institutes of Health grants.
PETA criticized the study as being unhelpful to the cause of medical advancement, calling it "pointless and bizarre" and later requested videos and photos from the experiment under Oregon's public records law. OHSU researchers claimed there were no photo or video records, but Ryabinin later clarified the photos and videos had been deleted after the experiments, as instructed by the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where the experiment took place.
PETA later petitioned the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office, but the DA's office declined to take action, leaving PETA to sue for the records.
PETA argued the research university, which also maintains the Oregon National Primate Research Center in Beaverton, purposefully deleted the records to avoid public scrutiny from animal advocacy groups like PETA.
While the lawsuit was pending, PETA learned that OHSU police received daily email updates from a company called Information Network Associates, Inc. and regular updates from Americans for Medical Progress, meaning OHSU's internal police were monitoring the political and social views, as well as the activities, of PETA. The court ruled that amounted to illegal surveillance.
Under Oregon law, police agencies may not conduct surveillance unless it's related to a criminal investigation.
"Some members of the OHSU Public Safety team previously were included on an email distribution list for INA and AMP newsletters, which contain publicly available information about anti-animal research public protests and statements — including statements about OHSU — for the purpose of staying abreast of potential impacts to OHSU operations and to help employees be aware of potential threats and disruptions," OHSU said in a statement released July 7 after the court ruling.
OHSU said its public safety team stopped subscribing to the emails in early 2022.
Judge Lavin ordered OHSU to permanently delete the emails related to PETA's activity and ordered the research hospital to pay $400 in penalties and cover PETA's attorney fees for two separate violations of state public records law.
"This is a significant victory not just for PETA but for the public's right to keep the institutions they fund accountable," said Asher Smith, director of litigation for the PETA Foundation. "In addition to being found to have illegally surveilled PETA, OHSU has been deservedly sanctioned for attempting to destroy evidence showing the harm it inflicted on animals in cruel experiments."
In a statement issued July 7, OHSU said it "respects the ruling" made by Judge Lavin.
"As a public corporation of the state of Oregon, we take seriously our obligation to comply with Oregon Public Records Law and have a long history of transparently responding to public records requests in a timely manner," OHSU stated. "The lawsuit did not make any allegations regarding the care or treatment of research animals."
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