Boston College Must Release Records in IRA Oral-History Case, Appeals Court Says

July 07, 2012

A federal appeals court has upheld a ruling that requires Boston College to hand over to British authorities recordings of confidential interviews with former Irish Republican Army members. The decision, issued on Friday by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, is the latest in a series of rulings in the case that have raised alarm among oral-history researchers about the legal authority of academic confidentiality agreements.

The interviews were collected as part of an oral-history project, and researchers had given the participants assurances that the interviews would be kept secret. The researchers have argued in court that if the recordings were revealed, the former IRA members confront "the real risk of physical harm."

The oral-history records are part of the Belfast project, which is housed at Boston College and documents the late 20th-century unrest in Northern Ireland. British authorities want the interviews for investigations in Northern Ireland of past IRA activity.

U.S. attorneys sought the records on the British government's behalf of and issued subpoenas to Boston College in the spring of 2011. In December, Judge William G. Young of the U.S. District in Boston ruled that the recordings should be released.

The lead researchers on the project appealed that decision to the First Circuit court. Boston College chose not to join the appeal.

Lawyers for the researchers, Anthony McIntyre and Ed Moloney, argued in the appeal that disclosing the interviews would place project participants in danger and also could have a chilling effect on further participation in oral-history projects.

In an opinion issued on Friday, a three-judge panel of the First Circuit court acknowledged that concern, but, citing Supreme Court precedent, said that it did not provide a legal basis for failing to comply with the subpoenas. "The choice to investigate criminal activity belongs to the government and is not subject to veto by academic researchers," it says.