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Judge issues preliminary injunction blocking release of identifying information on Wash. fetal tissue researchers

A federal court last week issued a preliminary injunction blocking abortion-rights opponents from accessing the personal identifying information of fetal tissue researchers in Washington state, Seattle Post Intelligencer reports.

The decision prohibits the disclosure of the identifying information until a trial begins in the lawsuit. According to the Post Intelligencer, a trial date has not been scheduled (Pulkkinen, Seattle Post Intelligencer, 11/18).

Background

In July 2015, the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) began releasing a series of misleading videos of Planned Parenthood officials discussing fetal tissue donation. Planned Parenthood has stated that the videos were heavily edited and that the filmed officials did not conduct any illegal activities.

Following the release of the videos, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) called for the Harris County district attorney to launch a criminal investigation into Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast. The Harris County grand jury tasked with investigating Planned Parenthood cleared the organization of any wrongdoing and instead indicted CMP Director David Daleiden and employee Sandra Merritt. Earlier this year, a Texas judge dismissed the charges filed against Daleiden and Merrit based on a legal technicality.

Daleiden and Zachary Freeman, communications director for the Family Policy Institute of Washington (FPIW), requested records under the Washington Public Records Act from the University of Washington's (UW) Birth Defects Research Laboratory, Seattle Children's Hospital, multiple Planned Parenthood affiliates and other medical organizations. The requested documents date back to 2010 and include contracts, billing statements, emails, grant applications, purchase orders, transfer agreements and rent/lease agreements, as well as other materials.

Wash. lawsuit details

The latest lawsuit, filed against Daleiden and Freeman, seeks an injunction to prevent the university from releasing identifying information. UW is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit since the university is being asked to release the information.

The eight plaintiffs, who filed the lawsuit as Jane and John Does, include three UW employees, employees affiliated with three hospitals in the state, one Planned Parenthood employee and one former employee for Planned Parenthood. They are seeking class-action status to represent up to 150 individuals affiliated with the UW research center, Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and Idaho, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the Cedar River Clinics and Evergreen Hospital Medical Center.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs asked federal Judge James Robart to first identify employees and researchers at Planned Parenthood and UW who would be affected if the requested information was made public and then to bar UW from disclosing any materials that include identifying information on those individuals. According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs do not oppose the submission of the requested materials so long as the identifying information is redacted.

The plaintiffs said they could face antiabortion-rights harassment and violence if their identifying information is released. According to the plaintiffs, submitting unredacted materials would violate their privacy and free association rights as established by the Constitution.

In August, Robart issued a temporary restraining order to the plaintiffs blocking the release of their personal identifying information (Women's Health Policy Report, 8/10).

Latest developments

Last week, Robart issued a preliminary injunction, ruling that the work done by the researchers and clinic workers affected by potential disclosure of information is a form of political advocacy and therefore protected under the U.S. Constitution.

Robart wrote, "Even if the research in which (the workers) participate or to which they contribute does not fall within the ambit of First Amendment protection, the groups with which (they) have participated or associated do engage in advocacy for the health and reproductive rights of women."

According to Robart, Supreme Court precedent holds that the First Amendment trumps public record laws if requested information could put an individual at risk of "threats, harassment, or reprisals from either government officials or private parties." Robart noted that clinics in the state have been targeted and attacked by abortion-rights opponents, including protests, firebombing and vandalism.

Robart added that the plaintiffs were likely to win on the merits. "The court agrees that the public has an interest in understanding and obtaining information about the types of research and other work in which UW engages with public funds, but releasing (the workers') personally identifying information would do little, if anything, to advance that interest."

He continued, "The First Amendment does not allow state law to force individual (people) to choose between facing threats, harassment, and violence for engaging in ... research at a public institution, and foregoing engagement with that public institution to avoid disclosure of personally identifying information and the related harassment and threats that such disclosure is likely to bring ... This is exactly the kind of 'chilling effect' that the Constitution forbids."

Janet Chung, an attorney at Legal Voice, praised the decision. "This crusade to stigmatize providers, politicize women's health, and try to restrict abortion has gone on long enough," she said, adding, "It's past time to stop the attacks on health care professionals and the necessary care they provide" (Post Intelligencer, 11/18).