BOSTON COLLEGE is justifiably proud of its relationship with Ireland and its role in helping to shepherd the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Those close ties are one reason the college has been waging a court battle against a US government subpoena, requested by British authorities, which seeks testimony from a sealed oral history project about the war in Northern Ireland. Boston College’s concerns are valid, but the interests of justice and diplomacy outweigh any claim for special protection. The promise that was made to participants in the oral history project - that their testimony wouldn’t be released until they died - must be rescinded in light of a murder investigation.
The testimony in question comes from Dolours Price, a former paramilitary with Irish Republican Army. She was interviewed several years ago as part of the Belfast Project, a laudable effort to record views and stories from both sides of the Troubles, before the participants pass away. British authorities believe her testimony contains information about kidnappings and murders committed more than 30 years ago, including the death of a widowed mother of 10.
Boston College argues that releasing Price’s testimony could having a chilling effect on oral historians everywhere. But carving out a special legal exception for oral history isn’t consistent with judicial interpretations of the First Amendment. The courts have set high standards for issuing subpoenas to journalists - whose role is specifically protected by the First Amendment and who serve a watchdog function in our democracy - but even reporters must testify under certain conditions. The benefits of oral history are more diffuse. And if the US government refuses to honor this British request, it could reasonably expect Britain to put up similar roadblocks down the line - at a time when all forms of international cooperation on terrorism are matters of life and death.
Supporters of Boston College say the subpoena itself could be politically motivated, since Price’s testimony might contain information damaging to Northern Ireland nationalist leader Gerry Adams. And the college suggests that Price and her interviewer could be in danger of retribution for talking at all. If those dangers are real, the British government should offer reasonable security. But potential threats and conspiracy theories don’t change the fact that murders, no matter how old, are worth pursuing. If a university in Ireland had information that could help solve, say, a cold-case murder from civil rights-era Mississippi, American authorities would want access to those file - and would be justified in seeking them.