Ethics and social science: grad student gets 6 months sentence for studying animal rights’ groups

This is an update of a story I have been tracking for a while: a sociology graduate student who had studied animal rights’ groups was  sentenced to six months in jail. Here is a brief summary of where the case now stands:

Scott DeMuth, a sociology graduate student at the University of Minnesota, was sentenced yesterday to 6 months in federal prison for his role in a 2006 raid on a Minnesota ferret farm. A judge in Davenport, Iowa, ordered that DeMuth be taken into custody immediately.

In 2009, DeMuth was charged with felony conspiracy in connection with a separate incident, a 2004 lab break-in at the University of Iowa that caused more than $400,000 in damage. DeMuth argued that anything he might know about the Iowa incident had been collected as part of his research on radical activist groups and was therefore protected by confidentiality agreements with his research subjects. A petition started by DeMuth’s graduate advisor, David Pellow, argued that the charges violated DeMuth’s academic freedom.

Last year, prosecutors offered to drop all charges related to the Iowa break-in if DeMuth would plead guilty to a lesser misdemeanor charge related to the ferret farm incident. DeMuth took the deal. No one has been convicted in the Iowa break-in.

This has been an interesting case to introduce to students when teaching ethics amongst sociology and anthropology majors in a research class. Just how far should participant observation go? Couple this with another story, like Venkatesh knowing about possible crimes in Gang Leader for a Day, and a good conversation typically ensues.

However, this case does bring up some larger questions about how protected researchers and their subjects should be when carrying out their research. Should researchers have shield laws? How exactly do courts define “academic freedom” in cases like this?

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