In January 2011, the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the 2008 convictions of John Reece Roth for multiple violations of US export control laws in connection with research he conducted while a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. United States v. John Reece Roth, 628 F.3d 827 (6th Cir. 2011). In 2010, the US District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee sentenced Roth to four years in prison for these violations.

Roth was convicted of violating the Arms Export Control Act and associated provisions of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) for unlawfully exporting defense articles and defense services without a license. He had been working on an Air Force contract for the development of plasma actuators for use in controlling the flight of military drone aircraft. Roth took certain technical data associated with that work with him on his laptop computer while traveling to China to lecture at universities there. He also disclosed technical data to two students at the University, one a national of China and the other a national of Iran, who worked with him on the contract.  

On appeal, Roth argued that the technical data were not defense articles or defense services because the contract contemplated that the plasma actuators would be tested on commercial aircraft before being used on military aircraft. The Court of Appeals, citing a Seventh Circuit ruling, United States v. Pulungan, 569 F.3d 326, 328 (7th Cir. 2009), held that the designation of items as defense articles or defense services was not subject to judicial review, but that the court could review whether the information in question about the plasma actuators fell within the ITAR definition of technical data. The Court of Appeals held that the information did constitute technical data because the ultimate use for which the plasma actuators were being developed was military.  

Roth also argued on appeal that the convictions resulting from his travel to China with technical data on his laptop were erroneous because he never opened the electronic file while traveling and could not have known its contents until after his return to the United States. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument, holding that Roth knew that the information loaded on his laptop included export-controlled technical data, and that taking the technical data to China was a violation of law even if Roth did not show the data to anyone while he was in China.  

The Roth case underscores how crucial it is that universities, faculty members, and student researchers be familiar with the application of US export control laws in the context of academic research and consulting. Universities should have in place export control policies that are disseminated to relevant faculty, staff, and students. Appropriate training programs and other safeguards should be instituted to ensure that the policies are effectively implemented. Faculty members should take principal responsibility for export control compliance associated with research and consulting projects that they lead, including responsibility for compliance by students and staff working under their supervision.  

As the Roth convictions demonstrate, exportation can occur by means of disclosure to foreign nationals even if the nationals are located in the United States, but it can also occur by means of travel with technical data on a laptop even if those technical data remain under the traveler’s control. Such activities are commonplace in the academic setting, but they are fraught with potential export control violations and should be undertaken with close attention to the export control laws.