An article from Inside Higher Ed on Scott Demuth, the University of
Minnesota sociology grad student facing terrorism charges for refusing to
disclose his sources.
Protecting His Sources
December 4, 2009
Social scientists who study illegal activities periodically face criticism
for their commitment to protecting the confidentiality of their research
subjects, who regularly break the law. Supporters of Scott DeMuth, a
University of Minnesota graduate student in sociology, say that his recent
prosecution by federal authorities is an extreme and dangerous example of
Professors are organizing on his behalf, saying that federal authorities
are using inappropriate measures to try to get DeMuth to reveal what he
knows about underground animal rights groups.
The case may be a difficult one for some in academe because the victims of
the criminal activities DeMuth may have studied are academics: The legal
dispute involves an investigation into an attack on research laboratories
at the University of Iowa in 2004. The attack -- for which the Animal
Liberation Front claimed responsibility -- included vandalism of
facilities, the removal of rodents being studied, and the trashing of
faculty offices. Many professors and graduate students lost years of work
as a result of the attack.
A grand jury is hearing testimony about the attacks, and DeMuth was ordered
to appear before it last month, after authorities came to believe he had
knowledge of the attacks, based on a journal he had that was seized in the
investigation of protests that occurred during the 2008 Republican National
DeMuth -- whose research is about radical animal rights and environmental
groups -- was briefly jailed for refusing to reveal whatever he may know
about the University of Iowa incident. He maintains that his knowledge of
animal rights groups is based on his pledges of confidentiality to the
individuals who talk to him. After he was released from jail, he was
indicted on charges that he conspired to commit "animal enterprise
terrorism" and to cause "damage to the animal enterprise." These charges
are under a new federal law designed in part to give authorities more tools
to go after those who vandalize animal research facilities.
David Pellow, a professor of sociology at Minnesota and DeMuth's academic
adviser, is involved with a petition drive for DeMuth and the creation of a
new group of professors -- Scholars for Academic Justice -- that is
organizing scholarly opposition to the prosecution. DeMuth did not respond
to a request to be interviewed, although he has posted statements in his
defense on this blog. Pellow said that the indictment for animal rights
terrorism is a sham, designed to force DeMuth -- who was in another state
at the time of the Iowa incident -- to reveal what he knows about those who
may have been present. Pellow said that DeMuth received immunity offers
when he was asked to testify, suggesting that authorities know he played no
role in the incident himself. (A spokesman for the prosecutor bringing the
charges declined to comment.)
Pellow said that the use of the animal research law in this way poses a
threat to DeMuth's academic freedom as well as that of anyone whose
research involves interviews with people who may commit illegal acts.
"Confidentiality is foundational to so much of the academic research we
do," he said. "Without that, we would find future potential research
participants losing trust."
DeMuth may be an attractive target for authorities because he is
politically active, working with groups that have sympathies with the
radical environmental and animal rights groups he studies. But Pellow said
that DeMuth's activism is legal and doesn't change his obligation to
protect his research subjects. "This is very much about public sociology,
about the idea that sociology isn't just about studying society, but about
improving it," he said.
The American Sociological Association's code of ethics, Pellow noted,
specifically stresses the importance of confidentiality. The introduction
to its section on confidentiality reads: "Sociologists have an obligation
to ensure that confidential information is protected. They do so to ensure
the integrity of research and the open communication with research
participants and to protect sensitive information obtained in research,
teaching, practice, and service." The ethics code stresses that this
obligation extends even when "there is no legal protection or privilege to
The only category of exception that the ethics code recognizes is when
confidentiality could create harm going forward -- and even in these cases,
the association is cautious on any breach of confidentiality. "Sociologists
may confront unanticipated circumstances where they become aware of
information that is clearly health or life threatening to research
participants, students, employees, clients, or others. In these cases,
sociologists balance the importance of guarantees of confidentiality with
other principles in this code of ethics, standards of conduct, and
Christopher Uggen, chair of sociology at Minnesota, called the prosecution
of DeMuth "extremely troubling, made all the more troubling and confusing
by the secrecy of these grand jury proceedings."
Uggen said he considered DeMuth a very talented young scholar and said he
was worried that the federal actions could hurt him "at a very important
time for his professional development."
The issue of confidentiality of sources is a crucial one, Uggen said. "To
the extent he's being asked to breach the confidentiality agreements he's
established, this has been just a nightmare," Uggen said. He stressed that
it's "not unusual at all" for a sociologist to interview -- with pledges of
confidentiality -- people who break the law.
A criminologist, Uggen said that work in his field and many others would be
endangered if research subjects had cause to worry about whether their
information would be shared with others. Many people have difficulty
separating the research subject from the researcher, and this is unfair to
the researcher, he said. "There is a reflected stigma that attaches to
researchers," especially if their subjects involve illegal acts that many
people are horrified by, such as sex offenses. But people who are concerned
about various activities also need to learn about them, he said.
"As a social scientist, I really believe one needs to first understand such
acts and motivations and that it's not at all a bad thing to be involved in
studying them," he said.
If a graduate student in his department actually vandalized an animal
research facility, that would be a problem, Uggen said. But learning about
and talking with those who do so -- and giving them confidentiality -- is
different, he added. Asked whether this principle was more difficult when
the animal research facility in question was run by fellow academics, Uggen
said that "it's difficult for me to place one class of criminal victims
above another class, even when I'm very close to that class."
At Iowa, the impact of the attack was significant. David Skorton, then the
president at Iowa and now president at Cornell University, outlined some of
the consequences in Congressional testimony the following year, noting that
when the Animal Liberation Front claimed responsibility for the act, it
also sent out e-mail messages that had the names, home addresses, and phone
numbers not only of psychology faculty members who work with animals, but
of their spouses and partners.
"Publicizing this personal information was blatant intimidation," he said.
"It was also successful, as these individuals are still being harassed and
are still concerned about their own safety, as well as their families’.
To cite one example of harassment, five faculty members as well as some of
their spouses received a total of over 400 unsolicited magazine
subscriptions under the 'bill me later' option. In terms of safety issues,
numerous researchers are even concerned about allowing their children to
play in their own yards. In addition to the human cost to the researchers,
their colleagues and families, the total direct costs for the incident are
Frankie Trull, founder and president of the Foundation for Biomedical
Research, which supports scientists who use animals in their work, said she
didn't know the details of the DeMuth case. But she said that it is
appropriate for the government to prosecute those who vandalize animal
research facilities. "Anybody has the right to express dislike or disdain
for what someone else is doing, but breaking into a research facility,
smashing up labs, stealing lab animals and ruining people's data, that's
not the First Amendment, that's illegal activity," she said.
She also said that researchers who work with animals are having limits
placed on their academic freedom by the threat of attacks. The professors
who work with animals "are pursuing knowledge" and should be protected, she
said. "Researchers should not have to think about whether the research they
are doing is going to endanger themselves or their families."
— Scott Jaschik