Academics, Advocacy and AETA

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Academics, Advocacy and AETA

By Bee Friedlander on Animals and Society Institute (ASI)
February 2010

Scott DeMuth is a graduate student in sociology at the University of Minnesota. His research focuses on social justice movements, and in the course of his work he has interviewed representatives of radical animal rights organizations. He came to the attention of federal prosecutors last fall who subpoenaed him to testify before a grand jury investigating a 2004 break-in at the University of Iowa, which damaged animal laboratories and for which the Animal Liberation Front has taken credit. DeMuth refused to testify and stated that to do so “would violate the trust and confidentiality of those who I have interviewed.”

A few days later and one day before the statute of limitations was to run, the government charged him with conspiracy to violate the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, 18 USC §43 et seq. Although the details of the charge remain murky (read the indictment here), many observers concluded that the conspiracy charge involves the 2004 Iowa break-in.

DeMuth says he was targeted because:

...as a part of my academic career, I have been involved in researching the animal rights and environmental movements and interviewing participants of those movements. The identity and contents of interviews are protected by confidentiality agreements, and I have an obligation to this confidentiality as outlined by the Institutional Review Board and American Sociological Association guidelines. Because of the grand jury's use in investigating social movements, I refused to cooperate and testify in the proceedings.

He was released on bond and awaits trial, now set for March 1. His pretrial is scheduled for this week; he has asked that the trial be postponed so that he can finish his graduate studies.

In an essay entitled “My Student is a Sociologist, Not a Terrorist,” David Naguib Pellow, Professor of Sociology and DeMuth’s faculty advisor states bluntly: "Scott is being targeted because he is a scholar who does research on some of the most important social movement struggles in our society and because of his affiliations with many such activists." Professor Pellow calls for support of Scott and the abolition of AETA:

My own research on movements for racial justice, labor rights, environmental justice, and animal and earth liberation suggests quite clearly that the state and corporations spare no expense and rarely hesitate to engage in surveillance, infiltration, and other efforts to neutralize the power and reach of these groups. As a publicly outspoken scholar and activist, Scott DeMuth is at the center of these dynamics.

The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (“AETA”) was passed and signed into law in 2006 under circumstances that seem almost quaint in the hyper-partisan climate of the current Congress. It passed the Senate by the unanimous consent procedure and the House by what’s called a “suspension of rules”—both designed for non-controversial bills. In the House, only six members were present at the vote.

The statute replaced the 1992 Animal Enterprise Protection Act, which itself contained stiff penalties for violence against animal enterprises (generally factory farms, animal laboratories and “competitive animal events”—but also defined to include, for example, animal shelters and fairs “intended to advance agricultural arts and sciences.”)

Introduced and passed at the behest of industry groups, AETA more broadly defines the activity that comes within its purview to include tertiary targets, namely families of those involved in animal enterprises. The law targets those who have the purpose of damaging or interfering with an animal enterprise; and who either (a) intentionally cause the loss of property (including animals), (b) put a person in fear of death or imminent threat of bodily harm; or who conspire or attempt to do (a) or (b).

The penalties range from 1 year imprisonment if no bodily injury, property or economic damage occurs, to life imprisonment if death (of a person) occurs. In between, the penalties range from 5 years to 20 years, depending on the seriousness of injury and the amount of economic damage to the animal enterprise.

But was this law necessary? Critics suggest that the behavior outlined in the AETA is already criminal under statutes that don’t target those taking action against “animal enterprises.” Read David Cassuto’s scathing indictment of it here; another viewpoint, expressed here, is that the law was passed as part of the “green scare.”

Because of our work in the field of Human-Animal Studies, the ASI has considered the thorny issues raised by the intersection of academic scholarship and social justice movements. Ken Shapiro, in Human-Animal Studies: Growing the Field, Applying the Field, part of the ASI’s Policy Papers series, challenges the notion that academic research is “value-free” but explores a more nuanced view:

Mainstream disciplines, such as sociology in the social sciences and literary studies in the humanities, take as their regulative ideal the understanding of the subject matter in their respective fields. This singular goal of knowledge for its own sake is considered value-free inquiry. Fields that have some relation to a social justice movement (such as Women’s Studies and HAS) are considered to have the further agenda of documenting the discrimination and exploitation of a particular oppressed group. However, contemporary philosophy of science has demonstrated that this distinction is overdrawn. In fact, whether mainstream or marginal, basic or applied, any scholarly enterprise is subject to value-driven influences, including political, social, and economic considerations.

That scholars necessarily wear more than one hat leads to the recognition that the ideal of value-free inquiry, while a possible and even admirable regulative ideal, occurs in an enterprise that is more accurately described as value-laden or … valueforming (citations omitted; p. 19)

As the field develops, it is important that it retain its reliance on rigorous, evidence-based scholarship. Philosophy of science has shown that, the regulative ideal of objectivity notwithstanding, research is colored by the values, socio-political context, and personality of the investigator. Although HAS is necessarily a value-informed enterprise, it can retain its credibility and elevate the level of discussion for both animal advocates and proponents of the status quo by assiduously adhering to traditional criteria of good scholarship (p. 2).

Nonetheless, Scott DeMuth’s prosecution is cause for worry. The AETA puts HAS scholars directly in the line of fire simply by using the label “terrorists.” More subtly, Inside Higher Ed, reporting on the case, notes that “The case may be a difficult one for some in academe because the victims of the criminal activities DeMuth may have studied are academics.”

Margo DeMello, the ASI’s Human-Animal Studies Director aptly describes the dilemma many HAS scholars must be facing in light of the DeMuth case:

With respect to HAS scholars in particular, many of us were attracted to the field because of our passion for animals and our interest in improving the conditions in which they live. We don’t expect women’s studies professors to be neutral on the issue of women’s rights, but HAS scholars often have to work very hard to prove to their colleagues that they are 'neutral' on the issue of animal rights.