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Judge affirms campus position on animal records disclosure

A judge has confirmed what UCLA has long maintained: Releasing detailed protocols and other animal research records places researchers at risk of violence and criminal harassment by militant extremists.

Ruling in a recent public records case, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John A. Kronstadt said UCLA is not obligated to produce certain records because the release of such records "would result in significant and specific risk of unlawful intimidation and physical harm to the researchers involved in the research and to their families."

Kronstadt said the public interest advanced by disclosure of the records is minimal, in part because multiple other public reports detail UCLA's compliance with animal welfare laws, regulations and policies. The judge's ruling came in July 2010. Appeals were rejected in April 2011.

"We are gratified that the court acknowledged the public benefit that flows from animal research and that there is ample information available that will satisfy legitimate public interest without putting our researchers at risk," UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said. "While we are a public institution committed to sharing information about our research programs consistent with state law, we are not willing to expose our researchers to the despicable tactics of those who threaten violence and set fires to make their case."

The judge's ruling represents an important step in UCLA's efforts to protect personnel from extremists opposed to the use of laboratory animals in academic research. In May 2009, UCLA obtained a permanent injunction that prohibits the harassment of personnel involved in animal research, and the university is vigorously enforcing the court order. In March 2010, one extremist pleaded guilty and another pleaded no contest to stalking and other felony charges in connection with the harassment of UCLA researchers. 

There is overwhelming agreement among physicians and scientists worldwide that laboratory animals provide irreplaceable and invaluable models for human systems. At UCLA, world-class scientists use animals in an ongoing quest for knowledge that enhances our understanding of how the human body functions and has led to the development of lifesaving procedures and medicines — among them radiation therapy and other cancer treatments, open-heart surgery, fetal circulatory health treatments, organ transplantation, mental health treatments, and vaccines.

For several years, UCLA personnel have endured an organized campaign of harassment intended to halt the use of lab animals in academic research. This has included the firebombing of a UCLA commuter van and a private vehicle, the placing of incendiary devices on the doorsteps of private residences and under vehicles, vandalism, and threatening phone calls and e-mails. These crimes are under investigation by the FBI and UCLA police.

The court ruling came in a case that originated in December 2006, when Jeremy Beckham, an animal rights activist in Utah, filed a California Public Records Act request seeking research protocols for five specified researchers who use primates. UCLA produced records that redacted the names and personal information of the researchers. Shortly thereafter, anti-animal research extremists claimed responsibility for a firebomb placed under a car owned by one of the specified researchers. (Evidence suggests the device was lit but did not ignite.)
When Beckham and a group called Stop Animal Exploitation Now (SAEN) made requests for additional records, UCLA withheld those records, citing the firebombing attempt and death threats made against another researcher. Beckham and the group sued.

There is a "causal nexus between (UCLA's) disclosure of animal research records and subsequent attacks on the researchers identified in such records after they are disseminated to the public via the Internet," the judge said in dismissing the lawsuit. He agreed with UCLA's contention that simply redacting the records would not adequately mitigate risk, because public databases maintained by other public institutions and private groups allow extremists to trace identities based solely on redacted reports.

Among the records sought from UCLA were a census of all non-human primates housed on campus, primate "daily care logs" and necropsy reports dating back two years, and all currently funded research projects involving primates.

The judge said there are numerous other reports that serve the public interest without jeopardizing the safety of personnel. Among them are detailed reports to federal regulatory agencies and accrediting bodies that detail, among other things, the veterinary care of animals housed on campus, procedures to minimize distress, and the results of unannounced inspections of animal care and use facilities.
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