PETA Suing U of U Over Public-Records Dispute 

PETA claims public documents were withheld, fee charged unreasonable.

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The Davis County Commission on Dec. 21 approved a $17,000 payout to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals for attorneys’ fees as part of a yet-to-be-finalized settlement of a lawsuit PETA filed in January to force the county’s animal shelter to comply with state open-records laws. Emboldened by that victory, PETA is targeting the University of Utah, saying the school has refused for more than a year to turn over public documents related to research in which about 166,000 animals are laboratory test subjects.

In several batches over the past year, the university has provided 1,316 pages of information to PETA in response to the November 2009 request, but the animal-rights group says the $2,420 fee the university charged is illegal and unreasonable, documents provided have substantial portions removed and some documents PETA believes are public have been withheld entirely. PETA research project manager Jeremy Beckham says the university is stalling and trying to stymie the request with fees and delays.

Download over 1,300 pages of University of Utah documents obtained by PETA in this records request (.zip)

The lawsuit, a continuation of PETA’s ongoing investigation into animal research labs at the university that began with an eight-month hidden-camera undercover investigation in 2009, was filed in 3rd District Court on Dec. 21.

“They know they can’t completely deny us because they lost before,” Beckham says, referring to his own 2004 hearing before the Utah Records Committee, which forced the university at that time to release records regarding experiments involving baboons and macaques. “So now they’re trying to charge enormous fees and they’re redacting information that will hamper our campaign efforts.”

University of Utah representative Kate Ferebee said the university would not comment on the situation. “All I know is we are aware of it in our legal counsel office, but we are unable to discuss pending litigation.”

PETA’s request under the Utah Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA), was filed one day after the group announced the conclusion of the undercover investigation. PETA says its investigation revealed some monkeys were being denied water, animals that were dead for days were not always removed from communal cages and lab workers were discouraged from reporting animal suffering to staff veterinarians. PETA also uncovered how dogs and cats in some Utah animal shelters were being sold to the university to become lab subjects sometimes less than a month after arriving. That revelation led to state legislation in the 2010 session that has ended the practice at all but one of Utah’s animal shelters, according to PETA.

In April, a federal investigation (see below for details) did not entirely confirm PETA’s accusations regarding animal cruelty at university labs. Aside from noting that a primate was denied companionship at the end of its life and some rodent cages were overcrowded, the U.S. Department of Agriculture mostly cleared the university of irregularities.

Beckham says PETA paid $2,420 up front for the documents and is now entering litigation to obtain the rest of its request because it believes some of the U’s experiment protocols may be illegal. “It’s not uncommon for PETA to take these protocols that we get from labs across the country, find information in the protocols that appears to be a violation of the law … and file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” he says.

The lawsuit (see the second document below) alleges the U’s legal department has itself violated state law: None of the redactions of the records, the lawsuit says, are supported with references to specific portions of GRAMA that allow government agencies to withhold many pieces of information. Sometimes, very basic details—like the title of a project—have been removed.

In a Jan. 27 letter attached to the lawsuit, the university initially cited five portions of GRAMA to justify the redactions. The citations indicate that the U believes the information removed was not public information because release could jeopardize the safety of a person, government property or the university’s intellectual property, that it may disclose works in progress—like unpublished manuscripts or scholarly correspondence—or could disclose the name or address of researchers who use animals in their research.
But the 1,316 pages of documents PETA has received are riddled with redactions, and PETA argues the university must indicate for each redaction why the information has been removed.

University of Utah--USDA Inspection Reports (2008 - 2010)

PETA v. University of Utah-2010-open records dispute

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