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 such criticism.
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 Convention.
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 do so."
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 applicable law."
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 approximately $450,000."
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."