Detroit - Wayne State University is exempt from answering a FOIA request about its use of dogs in medical research, because the last time it did "animal rights extremists" threatened its researchers with "torture and death," the university claims in court.
The university sued the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, in Wayne County Court.
Wayne State claims it released records in 2011 to the Physicians Committee, which sought information on the university's use of dogs in cardiovascular research.
"After WSU responded, PCRM launched a public attack against WSU, falsely accusing it of 'inhumane' and 'cruel' treatment of dogs in research," the complaint states.
"Animal rights extremists quickly seized upon PCRM's inflammatory accusations and began a campaign of harassment and intimidation against [one scientist], his family, WSU students and officials, including threats of injury, torture and death. One such extremist was subjected to a personal protection order by this court. The order was repeatedly violated, leading to citations for contempt and felony charges, including one for aggravated stalking.
"Despite the direct link between the release of [the scientist's] animal research records and substantial threats to the personal safety of [the scientist] and others, PCRM has persisted in its requests for such information through FOIA."
Wayne State says the information requested is exempt from disclosure under the state's privacy exemption.
"The privacy exemption protects the privacy of individuals by allowing a public body to withhold information that, if released, would present a realistic risk of being used to identify the personal safety and security of those individuals," according to the complaint.
Wayne State researchers use dogs to conduct cardiovascular studies on the relationship between heart failure in humans and reduced blood flow to the body's muscles, including the heart itself.
The university claims that after it released records to PCRM in 2011, after redacting names and identifying information about research staff except for the lead scientist, PCRM used the records to "grossly misrepresent to the public that WSU had treated its canine animal subjects inhumanely."
"For example, PCRM stated on its website that a particular canine subject experienced 'constant pain and suffering' and was subjected to 'inhumane' and 'cruel' experiments. It alleged that the dog had incisions that 'constantly seeped large amounts of fluid' and that 'her face and paws were swollen.' Experimenters were accused of 'dodging bites' while collecting data."
Around this time, the PCRM filed a complaint against Wayne State with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which conducted a three-day, on-site investigation and exonerated the university and the scientist, according to the complaint.
The PCRM, however, refused to remove defamatory articles from its website until Wayne State's general counsel demanded it, in April this year, the complaint states.
"PCRM thereupon modified its website content. The damage, however, had already been done."
For instance, in October 2011, an animal rights extremist organization, Negotiation is Over (NIO), using the information PCRM had acquired through its FOIA request, and posted on its website, published an article on its own website under the headline: "[Scientist's Name]: Federally Funded Sadist Tortures Shelter Dogs to Death at Wayne State," according to the complaint.
"The NIO website disclosed [the scientist's] picture, home address and telephone number. He was listed as 'NIO's Most Wanted' who were 'WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE.'
"Following the article were posts from different people threatening [the scientist's] life. One described in grotesque detail the torture and death of the researcher," the complaint states. "A true and accurate copy of the post is attached as Exhibit 1.
"On Oct. 22, 2011, the administrator of the NIO website, Camille Marino, sent an email to [the scientist] wishing him 'a slow and painful death.'"
Marino's continued harassment caused her to be charged with aggravated stalking, a felony, the university says. It says the scientist's family and other researchers, students and officials at the university were also subjected to threats.
"Under these circumstances, continued release of [the scientist's] Animal Research Records, which has previously imperiled the safety and lives of WSU's researchers, constitutes a disclosure of 'information of a personal nature,'" the complaint states.
"The disclosure of [his] Animal Research Records is an 'unwarranted invasion' of the researcher's privacy. Such disclosures have jeopardized the safety of [the scientist] and other WSU researchers and have added little to the public interest in enforcing laws regulating the care and use of animals in research."
The university says its research and experiments involving animals are already monitored by more than one organization and are highly regulated by federal law.
Wayne State seeks declaratory judgment that it is exempt from the defendant's FOIA request. It is represented by Thomas Cavalier.