This commentary was previously published at WGBH News.
Once again, the Obama White House has demonstrated its contempt for journalism and other forms of independent inquiry.
As we should all know by now, journalists do not have a First Amendment right to protect their anonymous sources. Following the same principle, academic researchers have no constitutional protection if they wish to keep secret the identities of people who provide them with evidence about serious crimes.
Thus it should be no surprise that U.S. District Judge William Young last year ordered Boston College to turn over parts of the Belfast Tapes, an oral-history project involving members of the Irish Republican Army. Those tapes led to the arrest Wednesday of Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, who has been accused of involvement in the notorious 1972 murder of an innocent woman named Jean McConville. (Adams denies the charges.)
The struggle for Irish independence was a decades-long guerrilla war. All sides, including the British military, conducted themselves shamefully. When seeking a resolution to such horrors, the parties generally agree that reconciliation requires them to overlook acts that would never be tolerated in normal times. Nelson Mandela’s magnanimity in South Africa is the best-known example, but there are many others.
But the British government leaned on the White House, and Attorney General Eric Holder subpoenaed the tapes. There was little either BC or the courts could have done about it once Obama and Holder made up their minds to go along with British demands rather than stand up for free academic inquiry. As former lieutenant governor (and former BC trustee) Tom O’Neill puts it:
In the Boston College case, our “special relationship’’ with Britain is raising serious and troubling questions: Are we abridging academic freedom in ways that will prevent participants in major international issues from stepping forward with their stories? Is the British demand for documents, and its search for alleged wrongdoing, driven as much by the politics of Ireland today as it is by the search for justice for past crimes? And why, when both sides in the Troubles were guilty of so much wrongdoing, is the British prosecution seemingly intent on only pursuing crimes allegedly committed by only one side?
As the journalist Ed Moloney, a leader of the Belfast Tapes project, tells The Boston Globe, “The damage is done. The whole process of conducting academic research in the United States of America on sensitive subjects with confidential sources has been dealt a death blow by the Obama Department of Justice.”
Finally, I should note that the legal case involving the Belfast Tapes has been enormously complex and marked by enmity between Moloney and Boston College officials. If you would like to learn more, Beth McMurtrie wrote a long piece earlier this year for The Chronicle of Higher Education.