Scholars Urge Supreme Court to Protect Researchers’ Pledges

Scholars Urge Supreme Court to Take Up Case Involving Researchers’ Pledges of Confidentiality
By Peter Schmidt
The Chronicle of Higher Education

More than a dozen social scientists have joined media advocacy organizations in urging the U.S. Supreme Court to take up a case involving government efforts to force Boston College to hand over confidential interviews with former members of the Irish Republican Army.

In an amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” brief filed Wednesday, 14 social-science scholars, all from universities in Indiana, argue that their ability to carry out sensitive research has been undermined by a federal appeals court ruling requiring Boston College to hand over to British authorities records of confidential IRA interviews that are housed at an archive there.

The researchers who had conducted the interviews as part of an oral-history project had given their subjects assurances that their identities would be shielded and access to the interview records restricted until the interview subjects’ deaths, unless the subjects requested otherwise. In a ruling handed down in July, however, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit held that Boston College could not refuse U.S. Justice Department subpoenas seeking the records on behalf of the British government, which wants them as part of its investigations of past IRA activity. The case has triggered alarm among oral historians and other researchers over the possibility that their pledges of confidentiality to subjects might carry little weight in court.

The 14 social scientists argue in their brief that the First Circuit’s decision affects research well beyond that at issue in the case, in that it “jeopardizes the long-term ability of scholars to gain information regarding profoundly sensitive and controversial subjects.”

In a separate amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to take up the case, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a media advocacy group based in Arlington, Va., argues that the First Circuit erred in denying the academic researchers a chance to defend their interests solely because the records at issue were held by a third party,Boston College. The Reporters Committee also argues that the Supreme Court needs to resolve discrepancies among the federal circuits on the question of whether courts need to decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether the government’s interest in obtaining confidential records outweighs First Amendment concerns.

A brief filed by an international organization of journalists, Article 19: Global Campaign for Free Expression, argues that the First Circuit’s decision conflicts with the legal protections of journalists’ sources enshrined in the laws of other nations and most states in the United States.

Three prominent organizations of Irish Americans—the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Brehon Law Society, and the Irish American Unity Conference—submitted a brief arguing that the First Circuit’s decision creates the possibility that the interview subjects will suffer reprisals, and potentially threatens the accord that has brought Ireland peace.