Fighting Firebombs with Reason

12 years, 4 months ago

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UCLA has over the past two years been targeted by animal rights extremists. Phil Hampton explains how the Californian university is responding to despicable unlawful attacks by succinctly explaining its position.



Firebombs change everything. That, in an oversimplified nutshell, captures UCLA’s evolving PR approach to extremists opposed to the use of laboratory animals in research.

For three years, UCLA has been a bright, blinking light on the radar of a movement increasingly targeting individual researchers in the United States and other countries in an attempt to coerce them into quitting. For UCLA researchers, that has meant Molotov cocktails, violent threats and vandalism and other forms of illegal harassment.

Our increasingly robust response, including a recent court order aimed at extremists, has generated additional news media coverage and may have played a part in additional harassment by extremists, leading to more coverage – a classic snowball effect. Now UCLA is routinely cited as a model for standing up to the fringe that espouses violence and spews misleading, inflammatory rhetoric aimed at ending animal research.

It wasn’t always this way. What happened?

Regular demonstrations

Critics of animal research have long demonstrated on campus with regularity. Before June 2006, the gatherings were typically limited in scope and intensity – a few dozen chanting protestors with inflammatory placards and flyers.

Our approach was characterized by minimal engagement; most commonly, we monitored demonstrations and handed out a printed backgrounder for the few journalists in attendance. If their march took them to the chancellor’s office, someone would meet them and politely “receive” their petition. After all, according to our strategy, why do anything that might draw awareness to the preposterous claims of a fringe element having difficulty getting attention from news media?

But in June 2006, the Animal Liberation Front escalated matters dramatically when it claimed responsibility for placing a Molotov cocktail-type device near the home of a researcher. Soon after, a different researcher announced in an e-mail to extremists that, after being repeatedly threatened and harassed, he was discontinuing research involving animals. “You win,” he said, sacrificing his life’s work for his family’s peace of mind and unwittingly providing extremists with propaganda used in an attempt to justify deplorable tactics.

Predictably, news media inquiries flew off the charts, and faculty members clambered for more forceful action. Campus leadership, as well as the governing body of the 10-campus University of California system that includes UCLA, faced heavy criticism from the biomedical research community and others for not being visible and vocal enough. Clearly, UCLA’s approach needed to change, and we needed a PR and media strategy to support the shift.

A thorough review

UCLA’s chancellor, the chief executive, appointed a campuswide task force to conduct a thorough review of current practices to support and defend the animal research enterprise and make recommendations going forward. He outlined other steps in a letter to the campus community, forshadowing the coordinated approach that the task force would recommend, encompassing legal, law enforcement, legislative, communications and other elements. To support the initiative, we arranged for him to be interviewed by the Los Angeles Times – sending a powerful message about UCLA’s commitment to protecting researchers and continuing its research mission.

“These activities have risen to the level of domestic terrorism, and that’s what we should call them,” then-Acting Chancellor Norman Abrams told the Times. Among the steps he announced were the doubling of a financial award being offered by law enforcement agencies for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the lawbreakers; provision of security guards at the off-campus residences of those targeted by extremists; exploration of legal remedies, and greater coordination among various campus units to ensure that researchers are made aware of potential demonstrations. A senior administrator was assigned as a liaison to faculty conducting animal research, and the university increased its outreach to the news media and to the neighbors of targeted researchers.

That was the foundation of a more aggressive response that has salved many faculty concerns and earned emulation from biomedical research and other scientific trade groups.

True to predictions, though, this approach has carried consequences. For example, after speaking out, the then-chancellor and a vice chancellor – who had not been previously targeted – each have had demonstrators at their homes, sometimes wearing masks and banging on doors in the middle of the night.

More ominously, extremists claimed responsibility for two additional attempted firebombings at the homes of two different faculty members – in one case, the Molotov cocktail did not ignite; in another, it charred the front door of a residence. Extremists also took credit for breaking a window and inserting a garden hose, causing an estimated $20,000 water damage to a faculty member’s home.

Legal action

Meanwhile, UCLA’s activities to combat harassment have grown, consistent with the recommendations made by the campus task force. Most notably, UCLA went to court and won an injunction designed to prevent the harassment of researchers. The court order, issued in February 2008, prohibits extremists from coming without 50 feet of researchers’ residences during a demonstration.

It also forced extremist groups to remove from their Web sites personal information about researchers, including e-mail addresses and home addresses, which had, in effect, facilitated harassment. In addition, the 10-campus University of California system that includes UCLA is sponsoring a bill in the state Legislature to strengthen law enforcement’s ability to investigate and prosecute those responsible for unlawful activities directed at researchers in California who utilize laboratory animals.

Journalists have called in droves – from the smallest community newsweekly to national radio and television networks and major newspapers, from leading scientific magazines to more obscure research journals. For three years, we’ve consistently emphasized the same basic points – UCLA’s world-class scientists, in a tightly regulated environment designed to ensure humane care, utilize laboratory animals while conducting lifesaving research into cancer, AIDS, Parkinson’s disease and range of other conditions.

But as extremist activities escalated so has campus leadership ramped up its denunciation of the illegal harassment, plainly distinguishing between freedom of expression and unacceptable, unlawful behavior. And much more information is now posted on our Web site. In short, we’re more engaging and more prepared than three years ago.

Safety in anonymity

Managing media requests remains a difficult issue, replete with conundrums. Journalists need faces and first-hand accounts of harassment to bring their stories to life, and faculty want a vigorous defense of their work. But most researchers are reluctant to grant interviews for fear of finding a firebomb or masked protestors on their front stoop.

Our experience has been that it’s not productive to engage in extended dialogue in the news media with those who publicly advocate violence and use inflammatory rhetoric. But by not responding, do we risk being viewed as hiding something? This is the calculus we undertake with each press query.

Our approach may not work for all institutions facing harassment. By necessity, public relations strategies vary with the personalities, culture and many other factors specific to each institution and circumstance.

It’s an ongoing balancing act and a series of tradeoffs, especially where news media are concerned, and there are pros and cons to every strategic decision. Everybody has to choose the strategy that works best for them.


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The Author

Phil Hampton

Phil Hampton, assistant director UCLA Office of Media Relations.

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