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Faculty Addresses Remain Online Despite New Privacy Law

14 October 2008 No Comment

By Will Jason

With the urging of the University of California, the state legislature recently passed a new law aimed at protecting the personal information of animal researchers. But more than two weeks later, the names and home addresses of several U.C. Berkeley researchers still remained on several Web sites, according to a review by 510Report.

Stopping animal experiments has long been a goal of many animal rights advocates, who consider the practice cruel and unnecessary. Supporters of animal research say the practice is needed to help cure diseases and improve humans’ lives.

Some opponents of animal research have used violence against researchers at U.C. Berkeley and other campuses in an effort to stop their experiments. In March, protesters threw a garbage can onto the roof of a U.C. Berkeley researcher, one of at least nine incidents reported in the last year, according to university police. In August, protesters reportedly firebombed the home of one animal researcher, and the car of another, at U.C. Santa Cruz.

It is such incidents that U.C. said it hoped to prevent with the Researcher Protection Act of 2008, or AB 2296. Signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on Sept. 28, the law makes it a misdemeanor to publish a researchers’ personal information with the intent of encouraging crimes against that person.

A group called Stop Cal Vivisection – a term for experiments on living animals – maintains a Web site with the pictures, phone numbers and home addresses of more than a dozen animal researchers at U.C. Berkeley. The same information, with nearly identical formatting, appears to have been re-posted on other Web sites promoting animal rights and other causes.

U.C. Berkeley science spokesman Robert Sanders said the law could help the university get court orders to keep researchers’ private information off the Web. But in mid-October the addresses were still viewable on several Web sites. In an interview, a member of Stop Cal Vivisection said the group’s site does not break the new law because it includes the disclaimer, “please keep all communications with these individuals legal.”

“The information is there so that others can legally pressure the university and the named researchers,” said group member Steven Hall, 19, a U.C. Berkeley sophomore. “We have never been about inciting violence.”

When asked whether U.C. Berkeley would try to remove the information, Sanders referred the question to a university attorney, who did not return a call for comment. But in an email, Sanders wrote the sites were trying to get around the law.

“These sites are attempting to skirt the law, yet what is the purpose of publishing someone’s home address and phone number if not to encourage harassment?” Sanders wrote.

According to a First Amendment expert who has reviewed the new law, getting the information taken down could be difficult for the university. That is because the university must show the publisher intends for Web site visitors to use violence against the researchers.

“That would be very difficult to prove,” said Robert O’Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression and a retired law professor at the University of Virginia.

While the future effect of the new law is unclear, some animal rights groups have already used it as a rallying point against U.C. Berkeley. On Oct. 6, a group calling itself “Feminists for Animal Liberation” published a message on the Web site of the North American Animal Liberation Press Office taking credit for two acts of vandalism. Partially inspired by the new law, the group said it smashed two researchers’ windows and scratched up one researcher’s car.

U.C. Police could not confirm any recent incidents matching those described in the message. An alleged victim declined to comment when reached by phone. A spokesman for the Animal Liberation Press Office said his group’s Web site routinely publishes anonymous messages from animal rights advocates, and could not confirm any details about the recent posting.

Whatever the outcome of the new law, university officials said it is not the only method they are using to target the harassment of animal researchers.

For example U.C. police say they are still analyzing computers they seized in an Aug. 27 raid of the Long Haul Infoshop, a building hosting political and social groups and offering public Internet access. Police believe perpetrators used the computers to send threatening emails to researchers.

“We certainly already have the tools to go after those who vandalize and commit crimes,” Sanders said.

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