An animal rights activist and UW-Madison alumnus does not have a First Amendment right to post off-topic comments on posts on UW-Madison’s social media accounts, and the university may hide these comments if they are not relevant to the topics of the posts. , a federal judge ruled Wednesday night.

In a 50-page decision, U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Crocker said comment threads on posts from UW-Madison’s social media accounts, while open to the public, are “non-public” forums because UW has generally sought, however imperfectly, to limit comments. about the current message.

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Animal rights lawyer Madeline Krasno, who graduated in 2013 and had worked as an animal sitter at a UW lab, sued the UW in 2021, alleging the university erased her comments criticism of the university’s animal research practices from its social media accounts in violation of its First Amendment. rights.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund, which sued on Krasno’s behalf, argued UW’s actions amounted to censorship because Krasno’s comments on UW’s Instagram and Facebook posts appeared on controlled accounts. by a government entity.

“We are disappointed that the court’s decision will lead to the continued removal of animal advocates’ speech from the University of Wisconsin-Madison social media pages, where comments containing words such as ‘cruelty’ and ‘animal research ‘ are automatically masked,” said Christopher Berry, ALDF’s managing attorney. “Our client Madeline Krasno is entitled to speak from her personal experience as a university graduate and former employee of controversial primate research labs. We are assessing our next steps and considering how best to end the clear and blatant violation of Ms. Krasno’s First Amendment rights.

UW-Madison spokesman Greg Bump said UW was “satisfied with the decision and the work of our legal team in defending this case.”

Crocker’s decision dismissed the lawsuit. He said UW has a legitimate interest in maintaining comments on its posts on the subject, which does not violate Krasno’s First Amendment rights.

“The University’s rule allowing moderation of off-topic comments is a reasonable and view-neutral rule that furthers the University’s legitimate interest in preserving interactive comment threads for discussion of topics posted by the University. University,” Crocker wrote. “Krasno is free to post her opinions on animal testing on her own pages or anywhere else on the Internet. However, she does not have the First Amendment right to post them on the University’s social media pages, unless they are related to the subject of the post of the university.”

Allowing off-topic comments to proliferate makes it harder for UW to respond to some comments, Crocker wrote, and can be a “distraction” for other users.

The courts have held, Crocker wrote, that “non-public” does not mean a forum closed to the public, but rather “open to the public only for specified speakers or specified expressive activities”. Some courts have referred to them as a “limited public forum”.

Krasno and UW agreed, Crocker wrote, that comment threads on Instagram and Facebook are not a traditional public forum, but disagreed on whether they were public or non-public.

Krasno, Crocker wrote, claimed that the comment threads are “wide open to discussing anything related to the University, including its animal experimentation program.”

The question, he wrote, is whether UW has “by policy or practice” limited the threads to discussions on the topic or opened them up to “indiscriminate use by the general public.”

At the time the lawsuit was filed in February 2021, the UW’s social media statement said that while the UW does not regularly review the comments, it reserves the right to do so for several reasons, including which of the “off-topic” comments. This disclaimer has since been amended to specify comments “unrelated to the subject of the institutional message”.

The policy, Crocker wrote, “signals that the University had no intention of opening the interactive comment threads for indiscriminate use.”

He also noted that other comments, not just those regarding animal testing, were subject to the “off-topic” rule.

“After reviewing the nature of the forum, the University’s written policies, and its actual practices, I conclude that there is insufficient evidence to support Krasno’s assertion that the University has routinely authorized off-topic comments on his posts by everyone but animal rights activists like Krasno,” Crocker wrote. “On the contrary, the University has expressed the intention not to open the comment threads on its social media posts to all posters for the public airing of their views on any subject relating to the University.”

If the UW only “loosely” moderates comment threads and, by accident or design, appears to condone some off-topic comments, it “may show that its restriction is unreasonable or based on one point of view, but that does not show that the University invited the public to ‘use its facilities as a soapbox,'” Crocker wrote, citing an earlier case.

Crocker also said that the cases Krasno cited in which then-President Donald Trump and some Wisconsin state lawmakers unlawfully blocked certain users from their Twitter accounts were not analogous to the UW case, because users in Twitter cases had been banned entirely. of these accounts. In these cases, the courts never determine what type of forum, public or non-public, the Twitter accounts represented, because the bans were considered to discriminate views, which is prohibited in all forums, he said. he writes.