Consent agenda

March 1, 2012

The story of the Boston College subpoenas is a complicated one and understandably THE's account is incomplete ("Law and academy clash in the long shadow of the gun", 16 February). For instance, the article states: "Participants were told that the (Belfast Project) tapes would not be released until after their deaths, though affidavits submitted in the legal case show that the university warned Moloney that it could not guarantee this in the case of a court order."

Missing from the report is reference to the rest of that paragraph, which came from a fax to me from Boston College librarian Bob O'Neill: "Nevertheless the First Amendment to our Constitution is greatly cherished here, and I suspect the courts would look upon these interviews as privileged information. But I am not an attorney." This was the opening shot in negotiations that later produced an assurance from O'Neill that no interviews would be lodged at Boston College if there were any legal risk attached to them.

When the Ulster Volunteer Force later agreed to participate alongside the IRA in the Belfast Project, its representatives met in Belfast with Boston College staff and were assured that the police in Northern Ireland could not get their hands on the interviews. Otherwise they would have walked away.

The key document in any oral history project is the contract given to interviewees to sign. This must specify any risks that exist so that the interviewees know what they are getting into. It is called "informed consent". If a risk of subpoena exists, this is the place where it should be clearly identified.

We have written evidence that the interviewee contract we were given was drawn up by Boston College in the final instance and was vetted by its legal counsel. This contract gave the interviewees the "ultimate power" over disclosure until their death and carried not even a hint of legal danger.

Had such a warning been in that contract, as it now seems it should have been, no interviewee would have dared participate and my fellow researchers and I would have walked away. The Belfast Project would have been stillborn and Boston College would have lost a valuable archive: perhaps that is why the warning was missing.

Ed Moloney, New York

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