Boston College Must Release Oral-History Records, but Court Will Review Them First

Boston College Must Release Oral-History Records, but Court Will Review Them First
By Jennifer Howard
Chronicle of Higher Education
December 19, 2011

A federal court has denied Boston College’s motion to thwart a government request for sensitive oral-history records. But the court will review those records confidentially on Wednesday before it decides what, if anything, must be handed over to federal authorities.

A spokesman for the college said it was happy with the decision because the court acknowledged the need to protect confidential research.

Friday’s ruling, by the U.S. District Court in Boston, rejected the college’s request to quash the subpoenas for material from what’s known as the Belfast Project. In the project, from 2001 to 2006, researchers and journalists conducted interviews with paramilitary fighters and others who lived through the decades-long sectarian conflict Northern Ireland, always with the promise that the talks would be confidential until they died.

Boston College holds the tapes and transcripts of the project, including interviews with two members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, Dolours Price and Brendan Hughes. They alleged that Gerry Adams, head of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political arm, ran a kidnapping ring suspected of involvement in the death of Jean McConville, a Protestant mother of 10 who was kidnapped and killed in 1972. Mr. Hughes died in 2008, and the college has turned over the records of his interviews.

The U.S. Department of Justice subpoenaed the interview records on behalf of the British government. Under what’s known as a mutual-legal-assistance treaty, the two countries help each other in certain criminal proceedings. The Belfast Project records are being sought “in reference to alleged violations of the laws of the United Kingdom,” the court said, including kidnapping and conspiracy to commit murder.

‘Heightened Scrutiny’

The case has created concern among scholars, especially oral historians, who rely on confidentiality in the conduct of their research. Chris Bray, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of California at Los Angeles and a regular contributor to the history blog Cliopatria, has been a vocal critic of the proceedings.

The court’s ruling “means that there’s no such thing as confidential research, if a foreign government wants your research material,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Chronicle. “Academic researchers have fewer protections from foreign governments than we do from our own government. The way the DOJ [the Justice Department] applies mutual-legal-assistance treaties, and the way the courts interpret them, the door to the archives is wide open.”

In Friday’s ruling, Judge William G. Young agreed with Boston College’s position that requests for “confidential academic information” must be treated with “heightened scrutiny.” He noted that forced disclosure generally hurts “the free flow of information.” But he also said that the allegations involved were serious and “weigh strongly in favor of disclosing the confidential information.”

Boston College is “very pleased” with the decision, according to the spokesman, Jack Dunn. “It’s the outcome we hoped for,” he said. “In agreeing to review the research materials in camera,the court granted Boston College the relief it was seeking by providing us with guidance on what materials, if any, are relevant and need to be produced.” The ruling “recognizes the importance of protecting academic research and oral-history projects,” he said.

The college will not seek a stay of the ruling, Mr. Dunn said. “We took this legal position,” he said, “to protect the enterprise of oral history, to protect the participants who had been assured of confidentiality, and to protect peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland that we have promoted as a university for more than four decades.”