Sunday, 27 December 2009

Academic freedom issues in "terrorist" court case

The revelations in October that police and security services in Britain have rebranded dissent as "domestic extremism" told of a dangerous precedent. The following analysis of a similar situation in the United States, from Libcom, tells us of the direction in which we are heading.

A sociology graduate student who researches 'radical activist groups' is under pressure from a US court.

Sociology researcher Scott DeMuth and activist friend Carrie Feldman were last month charged with 'conspiracy under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act after he refused to testify before a grand jury that is apparently investigating a laboratory break-in at the University of Iowa in 2004' reports Science.*

Twin Cities Indymedia reported that on October 13th, the two Minneapolis activists were subpoenaed to appear before an Iowa Grand Jury, investigating a November 2004 Animal Liberation Front(ALF) raid of a University of Iowa psychology department animal laboratory.

Both Feldman and DeMuth refused to testify before the Grand Jury, with Feldman reported as saying: "Today my voice may waver, as I stand alone in this room. But I know I speak with the voice of every one of my friends, loved ones, and comrades when I say this: We will not be intimidated. We will not cooperate. I have nothing more to say to you."

Feldman said she had never been to Iowa prior to the court appearance; she was 15-years-old and still at school in Minneapolis at the time of the University of Iowa break-in: “The assertion by the prosecutor that I may be a target of this investigation is ridiculous... I believe that I am being targeted because of my political activity and beliefs, not my involvement in any crime.” A video of the break-in had been posted online by ALF and is viewable in this story.

In November, both again refused to testify and were jailed for contempt by a federal district judge. DeMuth was additionally charged with conspiracy to commit animal enterprise terrorism in Davenport, Iowa federal court, but later had his 'civil contempt' charge dropped.

DeMuth's research focuses on radical activist groups, and in the course of his research, DeMuth promises confidentiality to the subjects he works with. Such non-disclosure agreements are common practice in academic social-science research, across a range of topics from domestic violence and organised-crime to drug-use and whistleblowing. Researchers in areas that require such non-disclosure of participant information are adamant that such agreements are integral to their research. Researchers maintain that without these agreements, many complex and sensitive social issues simply cannot be investigated.

1600 supporters, including DeMuth's academic supervisor David Pellow, have signed a petition urging the US goverment to drop the charges. DeMuth's undergraduate research focused on Native American activists opposed to a highway diversion. The connection to the current case was that some of these activists had showed public support for animal-rights (AR) prisoners. Pellow suspects that the government believes DeMuth gathered detailed information about many of the AR prisoners during his research, which had been presented at Midwest sociology conferences.

The petition in support of DeMuth cites some of the core aspects of the code of ethics of the American Sociological Association (ASA):

Section 11.01:
"Sociologists have an obligation to protect confidential information and not allow information gained in confidence from being used in ways that would unfairly compromise research participants, students, employees, clients, or others."

Section 11.06:
"Sociologists do not disclose confidential, personally identifiable information concerning their research participants, other recipients of their service which is obtained during the course of their work."

Regardless of one's position on animal-rights activity, many activists will be concerned with the fact that an Assistant U.S. Attorney, Clifford Cronk, filed an emergency motion to keep DeMuth behind bars based on the fact that he is involved in anarchist activism: 'Defendant’s writings, literature, and conduct suggest that he is an anarchist and associated with the ALF movement. Therefore, he is a domestic terrorist.'

* full-text requires institutional access