Is Ruling Regarding Confidentiality of Belfast Project Interviews Setting a Frightening Precedent?

Note: This article was written in January, 2012.

Is Ruling Regarding Confidentiality of Belfast Project Interviews Setting a Frightening Precedent?
By Rebecca E. Neely
Legal Daily News Feature
JANUARY 27 2012

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states:
‘’Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.’’

Have these rights, in fact, been violated, in light of a judge’s decision in recent days to grant the federal government access to interviews, given in coordination with the Belfast Project – an oral history project taking place in coordination with Boston College on sectarian killings and the turbulent time in Northern Ireland – when interview subjects were promised confidentiality? In addition to a violation of rights, could the judge’s ruling put the lives of said subjects, many of whom are former IRA members, in danger, and cause unrest in Northern Ireland?

Interestingly, the case played out at Boston College, as a means of providing an up close and personal learning experience for law students. As part of an agreement U.S. District Court Judge William G. Young – who ruled in the case – has with the school, he occasionally brings the courtroom to the classroom.

Young tossed out the case, finding that the two journalists in the suit did not have legal standing to file the suit. Though Young’s ruling proved to be a victory for U.S. prosecutors, it may be short lived; a federal appeals court will probably have the final say about whether police in Northern Ireland can have access to the interviews.

Here’s the background: the British government wanted the interviews, and said it had a right to them, according to a treaty with the United States, which permits information to be shared that would help with a criminal investigation. Said investigation pertains to the killing of Jean McConville, a mother of ten who disappeared in 1972 and whose body was recovered in 2003.

Former IRA member and Belfast Project interview subject Dolours Price said Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, ordered the abduction and murder of McConville. Sinn Fein at one time served as the political arm of the IRA.

Judge Young previously ruled the interview materials to be released. However, journalists Anthony McIntyre and Ed Moloney, who’ve coordinated and managed the Belfast Project, were able to stop the materials from being given to the British government after seeking a review by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

In addition, the journalists filed another federal complaint against the U.S. government, saying releasing the information would violate their First Amendment rights as it related to conducting the academic work, and it could potentially lead to further political unrest in Northern Ireland. As well, they believe McIntyres could be in danger, as he lives in that part of Ireland, and because he’s been threatened before.

Spokesman for Boston College, Jack Dunn, said lawyers are considering whether they will appeal Young’s latest ruling. He explained that Boston College does not agree with releasing the academic work; however, the school also said it had made it clear long ago that any confidentiality promised by the journalists was limited by what U.S. law allowed.

And to put a face on the ruling: Carrie Twomey, American wife of Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA member who worked on obtaining the interviews, was quoted as having told The Associated Press, in regards to the information being released: “He’s putting my family’s life in danger. Boston College are cowards.”

Boston College’s stance seems ‘wishy washy’ at best. It appears the ruling, if left unchallenged, and un-appealed, could set a frightening precedent. That peoples’ lives could be in danger, as well, that First Amendment rights may have been violated, demands swift action.