Boston College Fights Subpoena for Confidential Interviews on Irish Violence

June 08, 2011

Boston College filed a motion on Wednesday to quash a federal subpoena demanding that it release confidential interviews from an oral-history project about the violent conflict in Northern Ireland in the late 20th century.

"Our position is that the premature release of the tapes could threaten the safety of the participants, the enterprise of oral history, and the ongoing peace and reconciliation process in Northern Ireland," a college spokesman, Jack Dunn, said in a written statement.

The subpoena has triggered anxiety in academe for its potential implications for oral history.

In a document supporting the Boston College motion, Clifford M. Kuhn, an associate professor of history at Georgia State University and past president of the Oral History Association, said it was customary for oral historians to give interviewees the option to restrict access to the content of their talks.

"I fear the Boston College episode could snowball and have a genuinely chilling effect on oral historical scholarship," he said.

The subpoena was issued by federal prosecutors in early May on behalf of the British government to aid in an investigation into crimes related to the conflict. The subpoena sought information from interviews with two members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, Brendan Hughes, who died in 2008, and Dolours Price.

Journalists and academics conducting interviews for the Boston College project promised participants—who included members of the IRA and other paramilitary organizations—that the material would be kept confidential until they died. The college turned over the interviews with Mr. Hughes, but it is resisting the demand for the interviews with Ms. Price.

In documents filed with the U.S. District Court in Boston, the college argued that a 1998 case, Cusumano v. Microsoft Corporation, provides a precedent for throwing out the subpoena.

That case was first heard by the same federal district judge presiding over the Boston College case, Richard G. Stearns, and was decided by the same federal appellate court that would hear any appeal in the current case. In Cusumano v. Microsoft, Microsoft sought the research notes of Michael A. Cusumano, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management, and David B. Yoffie, of Harvard University's business school, who had written a book about the Netscape Web browser.

As reported at the time by The Chronicle, the appeals court ruled for the professors, saying that researchers had a right to protect the confidentiality of their sources and that forcing them to turn over confidential interviews could have a negative effect on similar academic projects in the future.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Boston has until June 21 to file a response to Boston College's motion.