Lawsuit Filed Demanding Access To Electronic Records Removed From USDA’s Website

On behalf of a coalition of animal protection and research groups and Delcianna Winders, the Animal Law Fellow at Harvard Law School, this morning we filed a lawsuit in federal district court in D.C. challenging the USDA’s removal of thousands of records from the public website operated by the Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service (APHIS).  These records, including inspection reports, annual reports, orders and other enforcement records concerning entities operating under the auspices of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), were routinely published for public review for years pursuant to the 1996 E-FOIA amendments to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but were abruptly removed from APHIS’s website on February 3, 2017.  The agency’s explanation for the removal – the need to protect personal privacy – is groundless, as the agency has long had the ability to redact personal information from such records under FOIA’s exemption for personal privacy.  However, because FOIA requires the release of all segregable non-exempt portions of records, this does not provide a legitimate justification for the agency’s wholesale removal of these records from its website.  The Plaintiffs, which in addition to Ms. Winders, include People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Born Free USA, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the Beagle Freedom Project, have for years relied on these records to monitor the USDA’s implementation and enforcement (and lack thereof) of the Animal Welfare Act and to advocate for better protection for animals used in exhibitions, for research, and for pets.  The lawsuit demands the immediate release of the records that were removed from the website and the future release of all such similar records.  A copy of the Complaint can be found here.