Dealing with activists in legal jeopardy requires extra attention to ethical concerns, say protesters
Next week Rupert Read is due to stand trial on criminal damage charges, accused of pouring red paint on the steps of a lobby group known for its scepticism about climate change.
The conduct of research during civil and other protests can provide valuable insights and data, but it can also raise thorny ethical challenges. Will the host institution back their researcher if they are arrested, facing court or subpoenaed? Should researchers protect the identity of individuals who have broken the law? The answers to these questions might not only relate to serious risks for the participants and/or researchers, a researcher with a reputation of not protecting participants might find themselves unable to recruit participants anymore. This great Times Higher Education piece dives into the issues.
With environmental activists so convinced about the rightness of their actions but legality of these protests unclear, these cases should provide fertile ground for academic researchers – providing a level of complexity missed by outraged media coverage of, most recently, the disruption caused by Insulate Britain’s blocking of motorways and busy city streets.
But those wading into these contested and legally fraught cases also enter an ethical minefield. Gaining access to protesters can be an achievement in itself; but how do you handle issues of informed consent in fast-moving and emotional situations, or the disappointment of interviewees if your conclusions are ultimately unfavourable to those who cooperated with you?