Boston College (Cont.): Fixing a Broken Frame

Boston College (Cont.): Fixing a Broken Frame
Cliopatria – History News Network
Chris Bray

News reports frame the federal subpoena for confidential interview materials at Boston College as a threat to oral history scholarship. This is how the framing began; nearly two months later, this is how it continues.

But this framing misses the point. The Department of Justice did not say, in its friday court filing, that academic freedom is a meaningless claim of privilege in cases involving oral history research. What they said is that academic freedom is a meaningless claim of privilege, full stop. They did not say that the courts have no role in evaluating foreign requests made under the terms of mutual legal assistance treaties for oral history materials; they said that the courts have no role in evaluating foreign requests made under the terms of mutual legal assistance treaties.

Confidential oral history materials are at risk. So are embargoed correspondence, memoirs, journals, and other personal papers given to archives. So are the research notes of academics who study war crimes and dissident political movements overseas. Why on earth not? What does anyone see in the government’s claims, here, that draws a clearly bounded target around oral history alone?

The federal government has shoved open a door to archives and research material, period.

And the potential damage keeps going. On both sides of the Irish border, an independent commission is searching for the bodies of the Disappeared, relying on information from confidential informants to find the bodies of people killed and buried by paramilitaries during the Troubles. The lead investigator for that commission is now warning that the Boston College subpoenas are a threat to the commission’s sources, as former paramilitary members worry that promises of confidentiality are made to be broken.

The threat is not simply to oral history. It goes on and on.