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College: Academics also deserve protection from subpoenas

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials
Academics archiving the oral histories of the decades-long Troubles in Northern Ireland should be protected from subpoenas in ways similar…

Academics archiving the oral histories of the decades-long Troubles in Northern Ireland should be protected from subpoenas in ways similar to the protection given to journalists, attorneys for Boston College argued this week.

Asking a federal judge to quash a subpoena sought by British authorities investigating crimes committed during the period known as the Troubles, attorneys argued this week that academics should be protected from handing over the materials to avoid chilling confidential sources from talking to them and hampering future academic work on controversial topics.

The subpoena, which was sealed by the court, seeks information held by Boston College as part of an oral history archive known as the Belfast Project. The project sought to interview members of the Irish Republican Army, Sinn Fein and others about their experiences during the Troubles.

In exchange for speaking with reporters, researchers and academics, the interview subjects were promised confidentiality and that their stories would not be made public until after they died.

In the motion to quash the subpoena, attorneys argue that an appellate court ruled that academics researching important events “should be afforded protection commensurate to that which the law provides for journalists.”

Because important free speech issues are implicated by the subpoena, the college’s attorneys argue the court must balance the potential harms of divulging the material against the investigation’s need for the information.

The harms more than outweigh the British government’s need for the information, according to the motion.

On top of forcing the university to break its promise of confidentiality to sources, one of the subjects of the subpoena would be “deeply traumatized” if her materials were made public, the motion said.

In another instance, a reporter who interviewed the subject fears that he may face reprisals from those upset that the information is made public. The journalist has received death threats from individuals whom he believes to be former participants in the Troubles attempting to enforce silence, the motion argues.

If the university is forced to turn over the information sought in the subpoena, future projects attempting to document controversial historical topics may be jeopardized, the motion says.

“By breaching the confidence promised to interviewees in the Belfast Project, potential interviewees in future oral history projects may decline to participate in such projects, and vital historical work will be diminished,” the motion says.