Striking the right balance between free speech and privacy

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The Salt Lake City Council recently passed an ordinance that prohibits protesters from picketing within 100 feet of the property line of a personal residence they are targeting. The University of Utah supports this measure as a reasonable compromise between two important but competing interests.

As described in the ordinance, these interests are: 1) "the right of residents to residential privacy and to be free from being a captive audience to unwanted speech in their homes," and 2), "the constitutional right of the picketers to have reasonable access to their intended audience."

A similar ordinance was found constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1988 and a number of cities around the country adopted ordinances with these restrictions.

This issue arose in Salt Lake City because animal rights activists regularly target the homes of a few University faculty and staff who are involved in research using animals. Screaming, chanting and using bullhorns are part of the activists' strategy to frighten faculty members and their families. The explicit intent of the demonstrators is not to convince anyone of the merits of their arguments, but to harass and intimidate scientists so that they will abandon their research. The activists' goals are not to improve the welfare of animals in research, but to end such use of animals.

These aggressive demonstrations reflect the animal rights movement's strategy of threats, intimidation and harassment. Recent acts of vandalism by animal rights activists in our own community include paint and acid thrown on homes, locks glued, windows broken and lawns destroyed. Our faculty members have been harassed by repeated, anonymous telephone calls at night. One faculty member received a death threat.

The Foundation for Biomedical Research in Washington tracks the activities of animal rights activists nationally. The group documented a dramatic increase in vandalism and threats across the country during the past five years. Several years ago, a firebomb was left by animal rights activists at the home of a University of California, Los Angeles researcher. Salt Lake City activists demonstrated last year wearing black hoods and carrying a large banner depicting an AK-47 assault rifle.

While many activists support nonviolent means, others are willing to use illegal and violent methods to promote their cause. Alex Pacheco, cofounder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has stated, "Arson, property destruction, burglary and theft are 'acceptable crimes' when used for the animal cause." Tom Daley, a member of the British Animal Liberation Front, goes further: "In a war you have to take up arms and people will get killed, and I can support that kind of action ... and probably at a later stage, the shooting of vivisectors on their doorsteps."

Congress has recognized the increasing level of terrorism by animal rights activists by passing the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act in November 2006. The FBI is investigating animal rights terrorism around the country.

Given this larger picture, the University of Utah is pursuing a range of measures to better protect our faculty and staff from these serious threats.

Surveys show that the public strongly supports the use of animals in research, as do all biomedical research organizations concerned with human and animal health. Guiding principles of this research are the refinement of experimental methods to eliminate or reduce animal pain or distress; reduction of the number of animals used in research, consistent with sound experimental design; and replacement of animals with nonanimal methods wherever feasible.

In fact, the number of animals used in research has declined substantially during the past 50 years. Comprehensive federal regulations govern all research with animals that covers every detail of their housing, nutrition and medical care. The University of Utah has an outstanding track record of compliance with all animal care regulations.

The university strongly supports the First Amendment and the rights of individuals to protest the use of animals in research. Information gathering, education, ethical analysis, lively debate and public policy promotion are central to the purpose of universities. But the university also strongly supports measures that will protect our faculty and staff from harassment, intimidation and threats.

University investigators are not public figures or policy makers; they are highly trained, productive scientists who are dedicated to addressing serious human health problems. They do not deserve to be the targets of harassment and intimidation for work that is broadly acceptable to the American public, and funded and carefully regulated by the federal government.

We believe this ordinance strikes the right balance in protecting faculty and staff in the privacy of their homes while permitting activists to promote their beliefs in the public square.


* JEFFREY R. BOTKIN, M.D., M.P.H., is a professor of pediatrics and medical ethics and associate vice president for research integrity at the University of Utah.