PETA Lawsuit Against Texas A&M Could Set New Standards for Internet Speech

A lawsuit filed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals against Texas A&M University could let legal precedent on what a person can and cannot say on social media, News Radio 1200 WOAI reports.

Adam Schwartz of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of PETA, told News Radio 1200 WOAI that the University violated the First Amendment rights of people posting on its Facebook site when it removed all comments which the University deemed to be critical of its animal experimentation programs.

"And they had done so with an automatic filtering system," Schwartz said.  "It blocked out all messages that includes words like 'PETA' and 'cruel' and 'lab.'"

For the past several decades, A&M researchers have used dogs in research into muscular dystrophy, according to Schwartz.  

Texas A&M has not officially responded to the lawsuit, but it has said that all of its canines are treated humanely, in accordance with recognized standards.

Schwartz says since A&M is a state institution, it is an arm of government.  Since social media is the 2018 equivalent of the town square, it is clearly illegal for comments in that forum to be censored by a government entity.

"We allege that what Texas A&M has done to PETA is a violation of the First Amendment," he said.

PETA says this manipulation presents a 'false narrative' to viewers of its social media that its policies are 'universally accepted' and 'not condemned.'

First Amendment case law on social media is limited to say the least.  There are no significant precedents on how operators of internet forums can manage those forums.

Activists point out that social media sites like Facebook are under strong pressure to remove postings that violate standards and are considered 'obscene,' 'illegal,' or 'hate speech.'  But others say that deleting these comments may be trampling on free speech.

Also, there's the question of whose free speech is being violated, and whether the parameters are different between social media arms of public institutions, like Texas A&M, and private universities, companies, and individuals.

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