Frontiers of Academic Freedom: Can It Block a Subpoena?

December 21, 2011

Should academic freedom trump a lawfully-issued subpoena?  That’s the question in a federal case involving researchers at Boston College.

The case involves oral history interviews with persons involved in “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland.  Those interviewed were given assurances of confidentiality with regard to what they said.  Now the British government has requested access to those dates, and the U.S. government has issued a subpoena for their release.  Boston College is appealing, and one of the grounds for its request that the subpoena be withdrawn is academic freedom.  The judge has refused to quash the subpoenas, but did say that the academic freedom arguments merit consideration.  The Inside Higher Ed story is here; a blog post on Cliopatra by Chris Bray is here.

In my understanding, academic freedom is a professional norm regulating behavior within colleges and universities protecting speech (and writing) in pursuit of truth.  Insofar as governments have legal control over universities (public universities), they ought to respect academic freedom.  But I’m not aware of any understanding that would allow researchers (whose speech is not being compromised) to extend confidentiality to others under the cloak of academic freedom.

I don’t know whether the subpoena was wisely or even lawfully issued, but that isn’t the issue here.  The question is whether academic freedom should trump the subpoena.  I’ll follow developments in the case with interest, but I don’t see the case  for such an understanding of academic freedom.  Researchers can promise confidentiality to those they interview, meaning by that that they won’t voluntarily divulge what they’ve promised to keep confidential.  But that offer of confidentiality can’t be complete.  I think it must yield to a lawful subpoena.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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