A Tangled Web Indeed

Perhaps some of you have been following, or at least heard, the recent news out of Northern Ireland, where Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was recently questioned over the 1972 still-unsolved kidnapping and murder of Jean McConville during the  Troubles – a 30+ year period of conflict in Northern Ireland which lasted from the 1960’s through most of the 1990’s (you can read more about it here).  The current situation involving Gerry Adams is described in this New York Times article, and it is a story that should be of interest to many people, including historians, archivists, political scientists, lawyers, and of course, librarians.

This situation raises intriguing questions about academic freedom.  The tapes were made under a promise of confidentiality – “absolute secrecy” as the NYT put it – but that obviously hasn’t been how things panned out.  The reason why, though, is complex and likely unanswerable.  Did the researchers at Boston College make promises they couldn’t keep?  Or did their lawyers botch it by not properly vetting the agreements between the interviewees and researchers?  Did Boston College betray the trust and agreements; did they not put up enough of a fight against the subpoena?  Or did one of the researchers err by publishing a book based on some of the interviews when so many people involved are still alive?  A case could be made for all of these viewpoints.

As I said, the potential implications for academic freedom are complex and this case has been followed for several years by many in higher education.  Now, three years later, a precedent has been set that academic freedom is not all-encompassing.  It remains to be seen how much of a chilling effect this has on future research endeavors, but you can be sure it will have some thinking twice about participating in projects like this.


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