Boston College Defends Oral History Confidentiality

July 18, 2011

Boston College on Friday filed a brief in federal court, defending the right of oral historians to make confidentiality pledges, arguing that courts need to factor in academic needs when weighing requests for access to those records. The college's brief answers one filed by the U.S. government, which asserted that academic freedom is not a defense to protect the confidentiality of such documents. The U.S. government has taken the side of the British government, which is fighting for access to oral history records at Boston College that authorities in the U.K. say relate to criminal investigations of murder, kidnapping and other violent crimes in Northern Ireland. The college promised confidentiality to many of those interviewed and is trying to protect those pledges.

In its brief, Boston College says that it has never made an argument of an "absolute" right to protect confidentiality of oral history documents. But the college says that numerous federal courts have called for a balancing of interests in such cases, and that academic freedom and the rights of researchers are parts of the public policy equation that should be considered. The college's brief also says that the government unfairly cited oral history agreements between interview subjects and researchers at other universities -- agreements that don't go that far too protect confidentiality. These "selective" comparisons, Boston College said, didn't include topics as "traumatic as the Troubles in Northern Ireland." The brief closes by stating that forcing the college to release the documents in ways that violate confidentiality would create "a daunting impediment to collecting candid information about important subjects from willing participants in future oral history projects."

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