U.S. Obligations to UK under Terms of MLAT
Academic freedom is a legally meaningless “quasi-privilege,” and BC’s attempt to apply protected status to academic research makes “no claim of a cognizable federal privilege” Academic researchers have fewer protections against compulsory disclosure than journalists, since “the courts have long recognized the unique role which news reporters play in our constitutional system.” In contrast, “the limited protections afforded news reporters in the context of a grand jury subpoena should be greater than those to be afforded academics engaged in the collection of oral history” Journalism is a protected activity; academic research is not.
While the courts have no discretion in considering subpoenas issued pursuant to MLATs, the executive branch doesn’t have much, either: “In this case, the US-UK MLAT requires that, ‘the Requested Party shall take whatever steps it deems necessary to give effect to requests received from the Requesting Party’…Under the US-UK MLAT, the United States is obligated to obtain the requested documentary evidence in this instance and provide it to the authorities in the UK”
When foreign governments that have entered into MLATs with the United States wish to demand access to confidential academic research materials, the executive branch is compelled by treaty obligations to say yes, the courts have no discretion to say no, and “academic freedom” is a meaningless claim.
Much has been written and many opinions rendered regarding the subpoena request by the British government acting on behalf of the PSNI to compel Boston College to surrender certain information contained on tapes which are part of the “Belfast Project”. Above is outlined the obligations imposed upon the U.S. as a result of being a party to a Mutual Lateral Assistance Treaty (MLAT) with the UK. It seems very clear from the above that “academic freedom” is a legally meaningless claim and the executive branch of our government is compelled by treaty obligations to honor the British request. These international treaty obligations, unfortunately, would certainly “trump” any amount of intervention by American politicians to quash the subpoena request regardless of alleged consequences. This leaves only one solution and that is for the request to be withdrawn by the PSNI by whatever means are necessary.
Jack Meehan, Past National President
Ancient Order of Hibernians in America