Court ruling could “have a chilling effect on academic research for years to come”

Court ruling could “have a chilling effect on academic research for years to come”
ACLUm Online Coordinator Danielle Riendeau
Wed, 02/29/2012

Picture this: you are a survivor of the strife that scarred Northern Ireland from the ’60s well into the ’90s. You agree to give interviews–extensive oral histories, really–to academics “across the pond” here in Boston, under assurances of confidentiality.

Imagine that you are one of the researchers conducting the project, and promising your subjects confidentiality in exchange for their participation. The interviews cover secretive, nasty stuff–grisly details about civil war and violence, for which there could still be retaliation–and it’s absolutely necessary to protect your sources in order to get good, substantive information.

Now imagine that the institution under whose auspices this project was conducted is ordered to turn over confidential information from and about the subjects. Not good.

This is the crux of the latest case we are involved in, wherein Boston College has been ordered by the US government to hand over material collected by researchers Anthony McIntyre and Ed Moloney for an oral history they conducted called the Belfast Project, which involved interviews with people personally engaged in violent conflict.

Disclosing the source materials could have disastrous results for the individuals involved, not to mention the principles of free speech and academic freedom. If we make it harder to conduct research like this by making sources afraid to talk, it’s a loss to history and people’s ability to understand what happened. The memories of those involved will not be preserved and will simply disappear when they die.

We’ve just filed a “friend of the court” brief supporting the rights of these two researchers to keep the information they collected confidential. You can read all of the details here.

Our executive director, Carol Rose, said it best when she said the following this morning: “If this ruling stands, it will have a chilling effect on academic research for years to come.”