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U.S. District Court Rules Against Censorship of Research Data in Stanford Cardiac Assist Research Contract Case

STANFORD--A federal court Thursday (Sept. 26) ordered the government to award Stanford University a $1.5 million contract for heart research without a requirement that researchers obtain government approval before publishing scientific results.

The decision by U.S. District Court Judge Harold H. Greene supported the university's position that a "Confidentiality of Information Clause" in a proposed contract was unconstitutional because it restricts free speech. Greene found that the confidentiality clause was broader than the regulation upheld in the controversial Rust v. Sullivan Supreme Court ruling earlier this year. The regulation in Rust restricts abortion counseling in federally supported clinics.

Stanford filed the suit, Stanford v. Sullivan, Oct. 24, 1990 to protest the action by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Stanford had originally been offered a contract to begin human trials using a partial artificial heart called a left ventricular assist system (LVAS). But the government withdrew the offer on Aug. 31, 1990, because the university refused to agree to include the confidentiality clause. Six days later, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) awarded the contract to St. Louis University Medical Center. However, no human trials have begun under the contract because animal trials are yet to be completed.

Dr. Philip E. Oyer, a leading researcher in artificial heart devices and heart transplantation, is the principal investigator for the research. He has been studying LVAS technology for nearly 20 years.

"Unlike the health professionals in Rust," the court ruled, "the Stanford researchers lack the option of speaking regarding artificial heart research on their own time, or in circumstances where their speech is paid for by Stanford University or some other private donor, or not paid for by anyone at all. Regardless of the circumstances, during the contract's five-year life they may not speak about the project's results or its progress..." without the government's permission.

The Rust case involved a ban on speech within the context of a government program, but it did not prohibit program participants from speaking on the issue of abortion elsewhere.

The court also found that that university research falls within an explicit exception in Rust, since the Supreme Court there "recognized that the university is a traditional sphere of free expression so fundamental to the functioning of our society that the government's ability to control speech within that sphere by means of conditions attached to the expenditure of government funds is restricted by the vagueness and overbreadth doctrines of the First Amendment."

In addition, the court found that the regulations on which the confidentiality of information clause were based were "impermissibly vague" making it impossible for a researcher to know "what might be regarded as a violation of these amorphous standards." The court noted that such vague standards necessarily have a chilling effect on free speech.

"The case is significant for all research universities," said Iris Brest, Stanford University's associate general counsel. "The court has not only clarified the law in a previously confusing area, its decision also promotes that free exchange and debate of scientific ideas that insures the critical review of research. That in turn stimulates new research."


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