Court Releases Only Some BC Interviews from 'Belfast Project'

By Brett Snider, Esq. on June 11, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In a decision penned in late May, the First Circuit ordered the release of a limited amount of interviews from the "Belfast Project" to the British authorities.

The "Belfast Project" is a Boston College compilation of personal interviews and testimonials from former Irish Republican Army members, and in 2011 the British government successfully subpoenaed BC for 85 of those taped interviews and transcripts for a criminal investigation.

The Court only released 11 of the interviews, in an interesting conflict of United States-United Kingdom treaty and academic integrity.

Academic Privilege

The First Circuit made no bones about saying that the “academic privilege” or breaking of confidentiality by responding to a criminal subpoena is “not by itself a cognizable First Amendment or common law injury.” Branzburg v. Hayes, a Supreme Court case, established that even reporters cannot use the aegis of the First Amendment to deny a grand jury subpoena or answering questions for a criminal investigation.

Branzburg seems to apply here, and the First Circuit agrees; a criminal investigation over possible murder trumps a First Amendment privilege to keep your sources confidential.

The Treaty

The subpoena was made under the power of the US-UK Mutual Legal Assistance on Criminal Matters Treaty (US-UK MLAT) of 1996, which empowers the UK to have the U.S. provide “documents, records, and evidence.”

The government argued that only the Attorney General has the power to deny a request under US-UK MLAT, but the Court rejected this argument, stating that enforcing subpoenas is “an exercise in judicial power,” much like the Ninth Circuit did with a US-Russia MLAT.

A treaty can’t undo the federal court’s power to review and enforce subpoenas, and it would be an imbalance in powers to allow the Attorney General plenary discretion in this area.

Only Relevant Interviews

The subpoena in question requested information relevant to the abduction and death of Mrs. Jean McConville, a woman who was an alleged casualty of the 1970s-era struggle between the IRA and the British government in Ireland.

After re-reviewing these interview tapes in camera, the In re Dolours Price Court found that only 11 of the taped interviews were relevant to the subpoena, and denied the subpoena with respect to the other 74, citing abuse of discretion.

Whether this will seriously implicate any of the subjects on the tape in a crime remains to be seen, but the BC researchers see this as a victory, knowing that British and Northern Ireland authorities will not get the ‘show trial’ of IRA members that they wanted, reports The Boston Globe.

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