Oral-Historian Privilege?

So it looks like Boston College will have to give to federal prosecutors the tapes of interviews that researchers and journalists there conducted with at least one member of the Irish Republican Army. As part of this “oral history project,” BC promised interviewees that their stories would be kept under wraps until after their deaths.

But on behalf of British authorities, federal prosecutors here “demanded anything in the college archive related to the 1972 abduction and murder of Belfast mother-of-10 Jean McConville, who the IRA admitted to killing and secretly burying, claiming she was an informer,” according to the BBC.

According to The New York Times, “The subpoenas summoned interviews from two members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, Dolours Price and Brendan Hughes, a commander who died in 2008. They accused Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, of running a secret kidnapping ring.” Hughes died a couple of years ago and BC released his interview upon his death.

In June, BC filed a motion to quash the subpoena of Price’s interview, suggesting that the release of the tapes would endanger the interviewees and destabilize peace in Northern Ireland, not to mention cause great distress to Price, whom they say is clinically depressed. Other academics supported the institution. Here was a typical reaction:

“I think it’s wonderful that Boston College is fighting the subpoena,” said Mary Larson, first vice president of the Oral History Association. “What all of us in the oral history community are afraid of is this is going to have an incredible chilling effect on what we’re able to do.”

Because it’s more important to protect the activities of the “oral history community” than to pursue a murder investigation? I have no idea whether BC is correct about all the possible ramifications about the release of these tapes. But I do know one thing: The college should not be promising confidentiality to people with widely known histories of criminal, if not terrorist, activities.

Who do these interviewers think they are? Are conversations with oral historians now protected like communication with lawyers or religious figures? BC has decided not to appeal the judge’s decision. So for now anyway there is no “oral historian privilege.


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