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Alumna sues school, alleges it hid critical comments on social media

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    MADISON, Wisconsin (Wisconsin State Journal ) — A UW-Madison alumna alleges that the university scrubbed her critical comments about the university’s animal research practices from its social media accounts in a violation of her First Amendment rights.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund sued UW-Madison last week on behalf of the former student, Madeline Krasno, who previously worked in a university research lab as an undergraduate animal caretaker.

Krasno, who graduated in 2013 and is an animal rights advocate, said she encountered animal abuse firsthand while working in the lab, according to the complaint. She’s since devoted “considerable time” urging UW-Madison to stop its controversial monkey studies by posting comments on the university’s official accounts on Instagram and Facebook, which are followed by hundreds of thousands of users.

The complaint states that Krasno’s criticisms, along with any other comments she has subsequently tried to post, appear on her own account but are hidden or blocked from others viewing UW-Madison’s Instagram account or Facebook page.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund argues these actions amount to censorship, preventing Krasno from participating in any discussion on designated public forums, and also deprives others of her viewpoint on a publicly funded university. The organization requests UW-Madison lift restrictions imposed on Krasno’s accounts and cover their attorney fees if they win.

Christopher Berry, managing attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said the issue of government entities blocking public participation from social media accounts is a fairly new area of law, one in which his organization is eager to seek clarity. In one of the most notable cases recently litigated, a federal appeals court found then-President Donald Trump cannot block critics from his Twitter account.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, a nonprofit group focused on free speech issues on college campuses, studied nearly 200 public universities’ social media settings and found most institutions block a handful of users, restricting an average of 76 users on Facebook and 23 on Twitter. The group didn’t request records about institutions’ Instagram practices.

UW-Madison didn’t block any users on these platforms, according to records provided for the organization’s spring 2020 report, though the lawsuit states the university began to hide Krasno’s comments in September of that year.

FIRE concluded that these automated social media tools run contrary to schools’ commitment to freedom of expression and may also violate obligations under the First Amendment.

UW-Madison declined to comment on the lawsuit. Its social media policy states that the university doesn’t regularly review content posted to its social media sites but has the right to remove any content for any reason, including content it deems threatening, profane, off-topic, promoting organizations or programs unrelated to the university or otherwise illegal.

UW-Madison’s animal research, especially on primates, is a contentious, polarizing topic.

Animal advocates point to the accumulation of fines the university has incurred for violating federal animal research standards. Most recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture last spring ordered UW-Madison to pay $74,000 for 28 violations over a four-year period dating back to 2015. These violations included monkeys suffering from dehydration, mice going unfed for days and at least a dozen animals sustaining injuries that required amputations of their fingers, toes or portions of their tongue.

UW-Madison officials said most of the problems were immediately reported by campus staff to federal agencies and the university took steps to prevent future violations, including upgrading procedures, equipment and staffing, long before the settlement was reached. Studying animals is sometimes the only way to answer critical scientific questions, officials said, and the university is “committed to conducting this research in a responsible and ethical manner.”

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Krasno, who said she spent two years working for the Harlow Center for Biological Psychology, sees it differently. She “emotionally shut herself down” to get through work, recalling one day when she said she separated a mother monkey from her dead baby. On another day, she said she found a monkey who had escaped its cage and was covered in urine and feces.

Only in the past year and a half has Krasno started to speak more publicly about her experiences in the lab. She was initially frustrated after learning from a friend that her comments on UW-Madison accounts weren’t showing up on their end, Krasno said. The irritation, however, was eventually replaced with a sense of empowerment, she said.

“When I realized that they were doing that, it made me realize that my stories have more power than I thought they did,” Krasno said in an interview. “Them feeling like they need to suppress my voice made me want to talk more.”

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