Download PDF Version
Last year the First Circuit’s decision in United States v. Moloney, requiring two scholars from Boston College to forcibly disclose their confidential research, shocked the academic world.FN2 This high-profile subpoena case brought the idea of a “scholar’s privilege” to the forefront of the legal arena once again. The outcome of the case—the forcible disclosure and the denial of the scholar’s motion to quash – was not, by itself, all that surprising.FN3 But the vague, general lack of analysis on which the First Circuit denied the assertion of a “scholar’s privilege” was indeed both shocking and inappropriate.
There are two questions that must be answered to clear up ambiguities in this hybrid problem of evidentiary and constitutional law. The first is whether a scholar’s privilege does or should exist. The second is if the scholar’s privilege does exist, how can the courts uniformly apply the privilege?
This note advocates that the scholar’s privilege should exist as a qualified privilege. This note further advocates that the circuits should reject their current arbitrary use of the privilege and instead apply a balancing test that accounts for the interests of both the academics attempts to protect their research and the party seeking disclosure. Although the Supreme Court of the United States denied certiorari to United States v. Moloney, the issue of the scholar’s privilege will not fall by the wayside. The time has come for a definitive, specific ruling on the issue. We must find a better way for scholars and subpoenas to co-exist.FN4
I. The Existence and Evolution of the Scholar’s Privilege
The scholar’s privilege stems from the long-standing and hotly debated concept of a “reporter’s privilege.” The Supreme Court struck down this privilege in Branzburg v. Hayes.FN5 In 1972, Branzburg held that there is no absolute reporter’s privilege available under the First Amendment for reporters to refuse to answer questions or be subpoenaed in a grand jury proceeding. Circuit courts have split for years over the correct interpretation of Branzburg.FN6
Some circuits, such as the Sixth circuit, apply Branzburg’s holding rigidly, allowing absolutely no reporter’s privilege in any circumstance. In other circuits, like the Third Circuit, Branzburg does not control. The First Circuit has restricted the Supreme Court’s decision to its facts, implying that “[i]t seems a moot point now to argue that there is no reporter’s privilege in the federal courts.”FN7 But, the First Circuit has also developed a vague balancing test to determine applicability of the privilege. Several other circuits have adopted their own variations of balancing tests—but no uniform standard has been propounded beyond Branzburg.
The circuit split is not surprising when considering that Branzburg’s holding did not command a majority. Even more notable is Justice Powell’s concurrence and the dissenting opinion, stating “express support for recognizing a qualified newsman’s privilege,” which further bolstered the privilege’s strength.FN8
From the uncertainty of the application of a reporter’s privilege sprang further uncertainty when scholars began challenging subpoenas in the research context. The scholar’s privilege has not been as frequently litigated as the reporter’s privilege until recently.FN9 These cases vary factually, and scholars have only succeeded in quashing subpoenas in a few, narrowly construed factual anomalies.
The dilemma of the scholar’s privilege spans two legal subjects: evidentiary law and constitutional law. Critics of recognizing reporters’ and scholars’ privileges take the evidentiary angle. These critics argue that because the privileges are not included in the Federal Rules of Evidence, the Supreme Court has rejected their existence and therefore, their application.FN10 Proponents fight for “the constitutional guarantees of free expression, privacy, and defendant’s rights,” which they believe justifies recognition of a testimonial privilege to protect the researcher-subject relationship.FN11
Further, although many parallels can be drawn between the reporter’s privilege that was denied in Branzburg and the idea of a scholar’s privilege, there is also at least one notable difference—reporters may have an additional route for protection via reporter shield laws.FN12 Markedly, no states have legislated to protect the researcher in a similar manner as reporter shield laws. Therefore the scholar’s privilege is essentially the only protection that scholars may have.
The First Circuit has been confronted with the scholar’s privilege on a number of occasions, most notably is the In re Cusumano v. Microsoft Corporation case. Cusumano held that interview information collected by two scholars for a book was privileged from discovery.FN13 Although a scholar’s privilege is admittedly created in this case, the holding remains narrow: “[i]t would be extravagant to read the case as establishing any broad ‘scholar’s privilege.’”FN14 Through this ruling, research is clearly proven to be a special endeavor, deserving protection by at least a qualified privilege.FN15 However, the First Amendment balancing test applied in this case leaves much ambiguity, leading critics to the conclusion that Cusumano may have been a fluke decision.
The traditional balancing test that the First Circuit has adopted requires a court to “place those factors that relate to the movant’s needs for the information on one pan of the scales and those that reflect the objector’s interest in confidentiality and the potential injury to free flow of information that disclosure portends on the opposite pan.”FN16 Essentially the need for disclosure of the information is balanced with confidentiality and First Amendment guarantees. The factors to be used on both sides of the balancing test are not explicitly identified, creating room for varying interpretations and inconsistent decisions.
II. The Moloney Decision
Most recently, the First Circuit was again confronted with the issue of the scholar’s privilege and the incomplete balancing test in United States v. Moloney, when two researchers from Boston College were subpoenaed and required to disclose confidential interviews regarding their work on the Belfast Project.FN17 The Project consisted of taping oral interviews from recollections of members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, the Provisional Sinn Fein, the Ulster Volunteer Force, and other paramilitary and political organizations involved in the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland from 1969 on.
British authorities sought the interviews of Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price (former Irish Republican Army members) who were implicated in the 1971 abduction and execution of Jean McConville, a suspected British informant.FN18 The crux of the case lies in the fact that the Belfast Project scholars made explicit promises of confidentiality that the interview contents would be protected until the deaths of the interviewees. Since Hughes was dead at the time disclosure was requested, there were no problems with introducing his interview testimonial in court. The only issue was whether Price’s confidential testimonial could be disclosed because their confidentiality agreement had not ended at the time of the First Circuit decision. However, an interesting and surprising twist occurred while the case was wading in the uncertain cert-pool: Dolours Price was found dead in her home from an apparent drug overdose in January 2013. It is unclear as to whether this living vs. dead distinction affected the Supreme Court’s decision to deny certiorari in April.
The application of the balancing test in Moloney is radically different than the application and outcome in Cusumano. First, the precedent from Cusumano deals with claims of non-disclosure privilege in civil cases involving private parties. Moloney is more similar to the Branzburg case, in that the matters in both cases concern disclosure in criminal proceedings.FN19 The US Government was seeking the interviews in Moloney pursuant to the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) with England. Governmental and public interest seem to automatically have a higher stake in criminal proceedings, and especially where foreign treaty obligations are at issue.FN20
What is striking, regardless of the Supreme Court’s denial, is that the majority opinion of Moloney almost completely disregards the interests of the researchers. The majority does not include an analysis of the researcher’s interests other than to mention that “the fear…that disclosure might threaten their job security or personal safety or that it will simply result in dishonor or embarrassment” is insufficient to create enough of a scholar’s interest to tip the balancing scales in their favor. A balancing test is not a balancing test if one side is ignored.
Justice Torruella appeared to be concerned with the majority opinion’s lack of consideration of the researcher’s First Amendment claims:
It is one thing to say that the high court has considered competing interests and determined that the information gatherers (here, academic researchers) may not refuse to turn over material they acquired upon a premise of confidentiality when these are requested via government subpoena in criminal proceedings. It is entirely another to eagerly fail to recognize that the First Amendment affords the Appellants “a measure of protection…in order not to undermine their ability to gather and disseminate information.”FN21
Torruella concurred in the judgment of the opinion only, on alternate reasoning.
Justice Torruella’s astute observations in the Moloney concurrence call for a uniform application of the balancing test in order to fully protect the First Amendment rights of scholars, researchers, and academics. His opinion requires that the balancing test must actually perform balancing for a legitimate verdict to be reached.
III. Proposal for an Adequate Balancing Test
The balancing test that I propose is undoubtedly complex because it aims at protecting the interests of a variety of parties including: the subject, the researcher, the sponsor, the facilitator, the prosecutor, the state, and society.FN22 The test advocated here combines elements from the First Circuit balancing test from the Torruella concurrence in Moloney, and from various other circuits and lower courts, to propound a uniform standard that ultimately aims at recognizing and evaluating the interests of the scholars. I believe that this test fills gaps where the First Circuit majority in Moloney failed.
A. The First Amendment Interest: Potential Harm to Free Flow of Information
1. Qualified Individuals
The first factor to consider is whether the individuals that are trying to prevent disclosure fall under the traditional protections of the First Amendment.FN23 Reporters and academic researchers alike fall into these protections because they perform a range of conduct relating to the gathering and dissemination of information.FN24 The fact that scholarly research “provides the public with historical and analytical perspective on issues of public concern in government” demonstrates its traditional information dissemination purpose.FN25 No traditional First Amendment protection equals no potential protection under the scholar’s privilege.
Determining that scholars and researchers should receive qualified protection under the balancing test is fairly straightforward analysis from the First Amendment. Determining who qualifies as a “researcher” or a “scholar” is a more difficult inquiry. Beyond researchers and scholars, archivists should also fall into the traditional First Amendment protections. “Archivists have a professional duty to curate many types of materials, some of which contain confidential information.”FN26 However, researchers, scholars, and archivists should all be classified by their functions rather than their titles.FN27
The next factor to consider is whether or not the information, subject to disclosure, is classified as confidential. Information available to the general public or which can be accessed through other means of discovery may not be classified as confidential. Researchers should always be careful to get express, signed confidentiality agreements from their participants with explicit statements of protection. Even if a researcher has not made an express guarantee of confidentiality to their informants, a court may be able to deny a request for discovery of raw data if it finds very strong privacy interests are present.FN28
One disturbing aspect of the balancing test as it stands currently is that even express indications of confidentiality, like confidentiality agreements between researchers and participants, may not be indicative of privilege.FN29 For instance, even though the need for confidentiality was a central and prominent aspect of the Belfast Project in Moloney, including written agreements requiring that access to the interview records be restricted until their death or upon written approval,FN30 the court still rejected the application of privilege because the researchers knew that Boston College could make no guarantees of the ability to refuse disclosure on a court order. The court cited to a failure of Moloney’s donation agreements, but referenced Branzburg to reassert that even promises of confidentiality made in express confidence do not create a privilege.FN31 Therefore, confidential information is necessary for the privilege, but cannot alone establish the privilege under the current test.
This decision invalidating express confidentiality agreements is contrary to public policy. Because the court in Moloney already had possession of the tapes from reviewing them in camera, they were “making a sham of the scholar’s absolute assurances to their interview subjects that they would keep the tapes absolutely confidential until the death of each interviewee.”FN32 The notion that researchers can make promises of protection to their participants that can be struck down as unenforceable in court is disconcerting. “[I]f the government may subpoena confidential information subject to virtually no judicial scrutiny, the likely result will not be that the criminal justice system benefits, but that fewer people involved in potentially illegal conduct opt to speak to the press in the first place.”FN33
Under this balancing test, explicit confidentiality agreements must weigh in favor of applying the scholar’s privilege in all but the most extreme factual circumstances. In Moloney the confidential interviews were sought through the MLAT treaty to solve longstanding murder investigations, which might very well reach the extremity requirement.
Other factors relating to the confidentiality of the material must be taken into account as well.FN34 For instance, researchers may fear that they will “[run] the well dry” if their information is forcefully disclosed through subpoenas.FN35 Voluntary revelations and bargained-for communications between a researcher and study participants are vital to a researcher’s work. Consequently, “[w]ithout these sources . . ., many researchers, . . . would lose valuable sources of information.”FN36
Study participants revealing personal or embarrassing information will be appropriately shielded here under the balancing test. The study participants in the Proctor & Gamble case were kept confidential because the information was highly personal in nature including medical history and sexual activity. The nature of this personal information could inhibit future studies if revealed due to a fear by participants of inevitable disclosure.FN37
Furthermore, First Amendment interests should not be discounted because a third party holds the confidential materials.FN38 Third parties typically destroy confidential researcher-client communications in testimonial privileges and sever the effect of confidentiality agreements. In Moloney, Boston College was in possession of the confidential interviews. Boston College did not bother to challenge the first subpoena issued, and even when challenging the second subpoena, the lawyers began the challenge by submitting the materials to the judge to be examined in camera.FN39 Ultimately, researchers must take responsibility in forming explicit agreements with their participants and keeping their agreements and communications as their property. But, since difficulties may arise for researchers in keeping their research out of the hands of third parties (especially in the institutional context), the court should weigh the researcher’s efforts to retain sole possession over the information instead of the actual result. Efforts sufficiently signify that the researchers valued the confidentiality interests of their participants enough to make a stand for them, which should weigh in their favor.
In sum, confidentiality must be weighed by (1) whether a confidentiality agreement was reached between researchers and participants (2) whether personal privacy interests are present for participants (3) whether future research will be inhibited if there is disclosure and (4) efforts by the researchers to keep their research out of a third party’s hands.
3. The Extent of Protection Appropriate: Dangerous or Scandalous Information
If the information pending disclosure is found to be confidential—the next step is to determine the extent of protection that is appropriate for the confidential information. Determining the extent of protection likely must be satisfied through a case-by-case basis, through context evaluation of the confidentiality aspect. The highest demonstrations of confidentiality should be afforded the most protection and inadequate showings will not earn protection. Torruella’s view in Moloney found the interviews that the Belfast Project researchers conducted were confidential—due to the great lengths that the researchers went to prevent their unsanctioned disclosure.FN40 The Moloney case is a perfect example of information found to be confidential that was still not afforded the protection that the researchers wanted. There are a number of ways for the party seeking disclosure to deal with information that falls somewhere between highly confidential and inadequate including: limiting the subpoenas to only relevant claims, being willing to accept data with redacted confidential information, and helping to underwrite the costs of redaction and photocopying.FN41
Beyond confidentiality, the personal safety and potential dangers that disclosure will cause for the researchers must be weighed as well. Media in response to the disclosures in Moloney reported death threats against the Lead Researcher for the Belfast Project, Anthony McIntyre.FN42 Mr. McIntyre also stated in an affidavit that the home next door to his was smeared with excrement after the interviews were released. As mentioned earlier, the topics of many research projects are sensitive, highly personal, or controversial, and the safety of researchers and participants absolutely must be weighed with care. The issuance of the subpoenas in Moloney also “prompted broad news coverage and a minor international scandal.”FN43 Not only did the ACLU attempt to intervene, but Senator John Kerry and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged British authorities to revoke the subpoenas to encourage the peace process in Ireland. John Kerry has further argued alongside Moloney and McIntyre that “peace process stability considerations must take precedence over the tightly-written treaty obligations of the MLAT.”FN44 Subject matter that is more likely to create public condemnation should be afforded the most protection under the balancing test, while benign research on uncontroversial subjects will typically garner less protection.
On a similar note, public curiosity or newsworthiness in the content of confidential research should not be valued in the balancing test. The Dolours Price interview garners large public interest, but most of the interest is not based on the confidentiality issues or the police misusing academic researchers for law and order purposes. Instead, the public really wants to know the “gory details of what they imagine are in these interviews,” which is driving and influencing much of the reporting.FN45 Once again, an inflamed public, or heightened social interest should have no bearing on the balancing test in these cases. The focus must be turned from the sensational, provoking subject matter, to the true issue of the case—which is solely the rights of the academic researchers.
In sum, there are a myriad of factors that fall into the First Amendment interests including whether the individuals fall into traditional First Amendment protection, whether the information is confidential, and the extent of protection that the confidentiality requires. The key to evaluating each of these factors is thoroughness and reasonableness.
B. The Opposing Interest: The Need for the Information
1. The Nature of the Proceedings
The nature of the proceedings, evinced by case law, primarily rests on whether the action is a criminal matter or civil matter. Branzburg flatly rejected the use of a reporter’s privilege in grand jury proceedings.FN46 Other than that, Branzburg did little to specify whether this type of privilege could be used elsewhere. This is where the circuit-split rears its ugly head. Some circuits have held that Branzburg forecloses First Amendment protection in all criminal cases.FN47 However other circuits have claimed there is no reason to distinguish between civil and criminal cases in application of the privilege.FN48 The majority in Moloney disavows the precedent of the First Circuit that permitted success and application of a scholar’s privilege simply on the basis that these were civil cases where the government and public’s strong interest in investigation of crime was not an issue.FN49
Case law evidences that the government’s presence as a party in criminal litigation makes a radical difference in the balancing test, as opposed to results obtained in private litigation.FN50 It seems that the government can more easily prove their need for the information by emphasizing interests of national security and public safety when criminal overtones are present.FN51 Essentially, when the Government is a party to the litigation, if they follow their own guidelines and use careful practice, there should be fewer problems with getting their subpoenas granted. In the Moloney case, the government was the party seeking disclosure of the information. The Government’s interest was clear through the UK-MLAT treaty in which the federal government of the United States assumed an obligation to assist the United Kingdom in its prosecution of domestic criminal matters.FN52
The current balancing test requires that for the party pursuing disclosure in civil litigation to defeat the scholar’s privilege, the research must be more than remotely related to the lawsuit. The relationship between the information sought and the academic research must be more than tenuous.FN53 For example, in one Second Circuit case, a student was working in a restaurant to gather information for his dissertation when a suspicious fire and explosion occurred in the restaurant.FN54 His journal and notes were subpoenaed. Although his journal entries were clearly “scholarly work product,” the relationship between the fire and the student’s academic research were remote and could not be classified as expertise.
However, the question remains as to whether or not this binary distinction between civil and criminal cases is appropriate. The implication should be that civil cases will more likely be granted the privilege, but the type of case should not be a decisive factor. Criminal matters cannot be conceded to the government the way that they have been previously. Branzburg once again offers little guidance since the holding effectively only prevents a privilege in regard to grand jury proceedings. Therefore, the civil/criminal distinction should be considered when balancing the need for information, but should not preclude the government from being defeated if they are unable to prove that their need is legitimate.
2. Exhaustion of Alternative Sources
The second factor that must be addressed is whether the opposing party has exhausted alternative sources for accessing the information. Although this inquiry is not essential to defeating the privilege, it is still relevant in determining whether subpoenas seeking the confidential information are necessary.FN55 In Moloney, the information the government was seeking were interviews from one source who had passed away and one source that was still living. The government had no way of eliciting the information from the dead source, which makes their case even more compelling. However, the government could have contacted the living source, Dolours Price, to obtain the interview information. If Price were to refuse to surrender the information from her own memories and experiences, that would be her prerogative. This conundrum is similar to Cusumano, where the court permitted the scholar’s privilege, in which “Microsoft could have obtained that information directly from the sources revealed by the manuscript.”FN56
The one exception to living sources are cases where the alternative means of acquiring the information will create an undue delay or burden to the opposing party. In this case the factor should weigh in favor of the party seeking disclosure. At the time that the First Circuit opinion was issued, Dolours Price was an emotionally unstable woman. McIntyre speaks of Price as a sensitive woman who suffered mentally from the betrayal by those who shared culpability and by others who abdicated their responsibility.FN57 She would likely not have consented to an interview with the government in the way that she previously had with the Belfast Project researchers. In contrast, Price had built a relationship of trust with McIntyre; she attended his wedding and was the godmother of his son. These conditions on Price’s willingness to be interviewed may serve as an example of an undue burden to the opposing party seeking disclosure. But, once again, an unwillingness to perform other interviews should not constitute an undue burden unless all other alternatives to the information are inaccessible.
The civil/criminal distinction may also come to bear on whether the information is accessible by other means. Case outcomes indicate that information sought in criminal cases will be more difficult to access from alternative sources.
There is no doubt that the scholar’s privilege argument will rear its head again soon, likely without the complications of an international treaty and a murder investigation allowing the courts to cruise past confidential researcher interests. At some point, the Supreme Court must clarify for lower courts to what extent parties asserting their First Amendment interests in challenging government subpoenas of confidential information should – consistent with Branzburg – have a Constitutionally guaranteed right to present evidence before the court for review. If not, scholars and researchers will continue to have their motions to dismiss disclosure quashed, which in turn will cause scholars and researchers to have their work, their passion, and their interest in sustaining oral and written history quashed. The time has come to stop quashing and start protecting.
FN2. Nicholas J. Wagner, Split Over Reporter’s Privilege Highlights Tension Between National Security and the First Amendment, Circuit Splits (July, 12, 2012, 5:27 AM) http://www.circuitsplits.com/2012/07/in-2010-before-an-audience-of-college-students-justice-sotomayor-remarked-that-the-supreme-court-is-likely-to-have-to-rule.html.
FN3. See United States v. Moloney, 685 F.3d 1, 16-20 (1st Cir. 2012); Will Havemann, Privilege and the Belfast Project, 65 Stan. L. Rev. Online 79, 79 (2012) http://www.stanfordlawreview.org/sites/default/files/online/articles/Havemann_65_SLRO_79.pdf.
FN9. See Howard Gray Curtis, Academic Researchers and the First Amendment: Constitutional Protection for their Confidential Sources, 14 San Diego L. Rev. 876, 877 (1976-1977) (explaining that the traditional disagreements have centered on journalists rather than academic researchers).
FN26. Hannah Miller, Should a Legal Right to “Archival Privilege” be Established?, Due Process: Georgetown Law Library Blog, (February 26, 2013), http://www.law.georgetown.edu/library/blog/post.cfm/should-a-legal-right-to-archival-privilege-be-established.
FN32. Harvey Silvergate, BC and the Belfast Project: A Scholar’s Privilege to Disobey, Forbes, (July 23, 2012, 11:48 AM), http://www.forbes.com/sites/harveysilverglate/2012/07/23/bc-and-the-belfast-project-a-scholars-privilege-to-disobey/.
FN37. See Farnsworth v. Proctor & Gamble Co., 758 F.2d 1545, 1546 (11th Cir. 1985)(preventing disclosure of questions regarding medical histories, sexual practices, contraceptive methods, pregnancy histories, menstrual activity, tampon usage, etc).
FN44. Jim Dee, Death of Dolours could be a major game-changer, BelfastTelegraph.co.uk, Jan. 29, 2013, http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/opinion/news-analysis/death-of-dolours-could-be-a-major-gamechanger-29041219.html.
FN45. Radio Free Eireann Interview with Anthony McInture and Ed Moloney: The Death of Dolours Price, Boston College Subpoena News (January 26, 2013), https://bostoncollegesubpoena.wordpress.com/2013/01/27/radio-free-eireann-interview-with-anthony-mcintyre-and-ed-moloney-the-death-of-dolours-price/.
FN49. United States v. Moloney, 685 F.3d 1, 18 (1st Cir. 2012) (distinguishing Cusumano v. Microsoft Corp., 162 F.3d 708 (1st Cir. 1998)); Bruno & Stillman, Inc. v. Globe Newspaper Co., 633 F.2d 583, 595-99 (1st Cir. 1980).
FN51. Reporter’s Privilege Legislation: An Additional Investigation of Issues and Implications: Hearing Before the Committee on the Judiciary United States Senate; 109th Cong. 6 (2005) (statement of Hon. Chuck Rosenberg, U.S. Attorney for the S. D. of Tex.) (stating that the Governmental interest includes enforcing federal criminal law, protecting national security, protecting vital secrets, and protecting public safety).
FN57. See Radio Free Eireann Interview with Anthony McInture and Ed Moloney: The Death of Dolours Price, Boston College Subpoena News (January 26, 2013), https://bostoncollegesubpoena.wordpress.com/2013/01/27/radio-free-eireann-interview-with-anthony-mcintyre-and-ed-moloney-the-death-of-dolours-price/