(CN) – Academic researchers cannot disturb a subpoena of confidential research interviews with former Irish Republican Army fighters that may shed light on the 1972 murder of an alleged spy, the 1st Circuit ruled.
The dispute stems from Britain’s interest in Boston College’s Belfast Project, a 2001 oral history study of people involved in Ireland’s “troubles,” which took root around 1969.
Belfast Project researchers spoke with members of the Irish Republican Army; the group’s political party, Sinn Fein; and other paramilitary organizations. Each interviewee was given a contract guaranteeing confidentiality “to the extent that American law allows,” and the interviews were coded to preserve their anonymity.
That privacy became threatened when the United Kingdom issued a 2011 subpoena under its mutual legal assistance treaty with the United States.
Britain hopes that the interviews, especially those of former IRA members Brendan Hughes and Dolours Prices, will help resolve its investigation into the 1972 disappearance of Jean McConville.
Authorities suspect that IRA agents abducted and killed McConville for allegedly informing on Republican activities to the British.
Boston College complied with the United Kingdom’s request for Hughes’ interviews, because he is deceased, but sought to quash the subpoenas for Price’s interviews.
Price is thought to be the first woman sworn into the IRA. In 1973, she participated in a car bombing that injured more than 200 people. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and spent more than 200 days on hunger strike before she was pardoned in 1980.
After U.S. District Judge William Young ordered Boston College to hand over the tapes in January 2012, Belfast Project directors Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre filed a separate complaint. When it was dismissed, they appealed to the First Circuit.
The federal appeals court affirmed, citing Branzburg v. Hayes, in which the Supreme Court found that reporters have no First Amendment right to withhold confidential information in a criminal investigation.
“If the reporters’ interests were insufficient in Branzburg, the academic researchers’ interests necessarily are insufficient here,” Chief Justice Sandra Lynch wrote for a three-member panel.
“It may be that compliance with the subpoenas in the face of the misleading assurances in the donation agreements could have some chilling effect, as plaintiffs assert,” Lynch added. “This amounts to an argument that unless confidentiality could be promised and that promise upheld by the courts in defense to criminal subpoenas, the research project will be less effective. … The choice to investigate criminal activity belongs to the government and is not subject to veto by academic researchers.”
“It is unfortunate that BC [Boston College] was inconsistent in its application of its recognition of the limits of its ability to promise confidentiality,” the decision also states. “But that hardly assists the appellants’ case.”
“Appellants simply have no constitutional claim and so that portion of the complaint was also properly dismissed,” Lynch concluded.