This week’s Take Action Thursday urges legislative action to ensure that public records remain open to the public.
When the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) removed its online database of information early in 2017, the agency told NAVS and other public interest groups that if we need public information, we should file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to obtain public records.
Over the past year-and-a-half, NAVS has done just that, filing hundreds of FOIA requests with federal and state government agencies to learn more about what the government and private companies are doing with animals in research, testing and education. Not having this information impedes our efforts to understand animal use statistics and trends, and to advance animal-friendly legislation and other humane efforts.
For example, as part of our campaign to ensure the adoption of cats and dogs no longer being used for research, testing or education, NAVS provides information to specific legislators on the number of animals used by institutions in their state. Last year, because of the redaction of FOIA requests, NAVS was unable to provide this information to a legislator in Pennsylvania who expressed an interest in sponsoring such a bill. Without statistics to back up our request, the legislator lost interest and no bill was introduced.
The importance of returning records to the public through a searchable database is more urgent than ever. A recent ruling by a federal Court of Appeals (see below) opens the door to the redaction of a greater number of documents in an attempt to silence animal advocates like NAVS—and you—who demand accountability on how animals are being used and treated.
Congress has the authority to enact specific laws that counter what the court has ruled. The courts rule on what the laws say. To change the outcome of the ruling, it is necessary to change the underlying law.
The passage of the Animal Welfare Accountability and Transparency Act, S 503/HR 1368, would require APHIS to make available information that is now being kept secret from the American public.
Please contact your U.S. legislators and ask them to become cosponsors of the Animal Welfare Accountability and Transparency Act before the session ends this year.
In the Courts
In the case of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, released on August 17, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld a lower court opinion that information on the importation of nonhuman primates could be redacted because it would reveal confidential information about the business of the importers. The information sought includes the type and number of nonhuman primates being imported, the size of the containers used, and the names of the airlines used to transport them.
The Court of Appeals upheld an exemption from Freedom of Information Act requests, Exemption 4, which protects “confidential” commercial information that when disclosed would “cause substantial harm to the competitive position of the person from whom the information was obtained.” In effect, the court ruled that concealing otherwise public information is acceptable when it leads to a competitive business advantage.
This decision could have far-reaching consequences for all animal advocacy groups working to obtain information on how animals are being used in laboratory research, and reinforces the urgent need to pass the Animal Welfare Accountability and Transparency Act.