Boston College Wins a Victory in Legal Fight Over Oral-History Records

Boston College Wins a Victory in Legal Fight Over Oral-History Records
By Jennifer Howard
The Chronicle of Higher Education
June 2, 2013

Boston College has won a significant victory in its legal fight to keep sensitive oral-history records confidential. On Friday, a federal appeals court ruled that the college must hand over only 11 out of 85 records subpoenaed by the U.S. government on behalf of British authorities.

At stake is material from the Belfast Project, which from 2001 to 2006 collected oral histories from participants in the Troubles, Northern Ireland’s long-standing sectarian conflict. Boston College holds the project’s tapes and transcripts. Participants were guaranteed confidentiality, and some scholars have worried that the case might have a chilling effect on oral-history work.

The legal battle has centered on whether government attempts to prosecute criminal activity trumps researchers’ need to protect sources and sensitive material. The British authorities have been especially interested in Belfast Project records that might shed light on the death of Jean McConville, an Irish mother of 10 who was kidnapped and murdered in 1972.

In August 2011, the U.S. Justice Department, acting under a mutual-legal-assistance treaty, subpoenaed all the Belfast Project records on behalf of Britain. The college tried to have the subpoena quashed but the U.S. District Court in Boston ordered the institution to surrender 85 interviews. The college appealed the order. (In response to an earlier subpoena, it has already handed over two other sets of interviews with Dolours Price and Brendan Hughes, two members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army who have both died since the Belfast Project collected their stories.)

In Friday’s ruling, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit agreed that the lower court had gone too far.

“After a detailed review of the materials in question, we find that the district court abused its discretion in ordering the production of several of the interviews which, after an in detail reading of the same, do not contain any information relevant to the August 2011 subpoena,” the First Circuit panel concluded. It said that Boston College must release only 11 out of the 85 interviews originally subpoenaed.

A Boston College spokesman, Jack Dunn, said the college was pleased with the ruling. It “affirms our contention that the district court erred in ordering the production of 74 interviews that were not relevant to the subpoena,” Mr. Dunn said in a written statement. “This ruling represents a significant victory for Boston College in its defense of these oral-history materials.”

It’s not clear yet whether either side will take further legal action in response to the First Circuit court’s decision. Mr. Dunn told The Chronicle via e-mail that “this was a favorable ruling, but we will take the time to review all of our legal options.”

Two Belfast Project researchers, Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre, also issued a statement in response to the ruling. The government attempts to get hold of the Belfast Project records represented “a flagrant abuse of the legal process,” they said. They noted that the court had ruled against “the indiscriminate assignment” of all Belfast Project material and “instead said that only interviews that deal directly with the disappearance of Jean McConville can be handed over,” the researchers said in the statement. “We see this judgment as at least a partial indictment of the whole process.”

But they also took the opportunity to criticize the Obama administration and the Department of Justice, along with the American academic establishment. “In the context of the Obama White House’s current intolerable assault on journalistic and media rights in the United States, the cooperation of the U.S. Justice Department in this disgraceful exercise deserved more condemnation and opposition from American academe than it ever got,” Mr. Moloney and Mr. McIntyre said in the statement. “Indeed the silence from that quarter during the last two years was almost deafening.”