Oral History and the Law: Boston College’s Woes

Posted on July 31, 2012 by WITNESS

By Corey Boling

At WITNESS, the importance of negotiating informed consent within human rights video is paramount.  By helping interviewees recognize the reach that their testimony may have in today’s digital age, both intended and unforeseen consequences quickly become part of the greater conversation.  Education is the key.

Legal proceedings surrounding Boston College’s Belfast Project are being carefully monitored and could set a dangerous precedent for future oral history projects.  The Belfast Project features frank and candid admissions from former IRA paramilitaries and Northern Irish Police have requested that US courts order the interviews to be released into the public domain.  Paying particular attention to the testimony of Dolores Price, a conspirator in the 1973 bombing of London’s Old Bailey Court, Boston College could potentially be ordered to turn over transcripts and tapes that may endanger lives while undermining Boston College’s commitment to keeping the interviews sealed until the interviewees’ deaths.

Gabriel Solis, the Guantanamo Bay Project Program Director at Columbia University’s Center for Oral History (CCOH), has been following this case very closely.  “One of the things that I always tell our interviewees is that the one thing we cannot protect our interviews from is a subpoena,” says Solis.  “The reason why they have subpoenaed those interviews and that the government is involved is because they think that those interviews have information about an ongoing investigation.”

Audio tape recording device. Photo courtesy Columbia University’s Center for Oral History.

Interviewing over 50 ‘narrators’ including civilian attorneys, military prosecutors, prison guards, investigative journalists, and former detainees, much of the CCOH’s Guantanamo Bay Project is uncharted territory for an Ivy League institution historically focused on the development of less controversial cultural collections.  “The project’s relatively new and these are new issues at our Center as we haven’t dealt with such sensitive material before. It’s only been within the past 10 years that we’ve started moving toward human rights issues, controversial issues.  These are new issues for us but it’ll be interesting to see how the leadership deals with them as they come up,” says Solis.

Hoping to avoid much of the hoopla surrounding Boston College’s woes, Solis emphasizes the Center’s preemptive approach. By maintaining a tightly knit chain of custody, often times consisting of no more than three people, the Guantanamo Bay Project maintains a firm grip on all of the information it receives.  But perhaps more pivotal to the Project’s success is its emphasis on transparently educating participants and revisiting consent.

Terrell Frazier, Director of Outreach and Education at the CCOH, punctuates this point. “In an oral history interview, consent is a process and it’s a consent-driven process from A-Z,” says Frazier.  From the initial phone call though to dissemination (or lack thereof), every effort is made to ensure that the interviewee understands that they are in complete control.  Solis explains how “At the point that we get the transcript back, we send it to the interviewee so they can take out any information that they want. They can clarify any information that they want. They can omit information. They can even add information.” And reminiscent of the terms under which Boston College promised to seal many of its IRA testimonies, Frazier adds that the CCOH also allows for “sections of that interview to be closed for many years.  Or in some cases the interview can be closed until a particular person passes away.”

But Frazier argues that renegotiating consent is more than just providing interviewees opportunities for revision and suppression.  “If we’re interviewing someone talking about a sensitive topic, then before the conversation gets to a level where there might be legal implications, we may pause the interview and remind the person that we don’t have protections that journalists do and that these interviews are vulnerable to subpoena,” – certainly a strategy now being discussed at Boston College.

But in a rapidly evolving digital world, the potential reach and impact of evocative testimony can easily ricochet across the information super highway.  So how does the CCOH protect its interviewees?  Flexing its technological muscle, dedicated specialists within the greater Columbia University Libraries system are capable of removing previously posted online material by leveraging personal relationships already established within Google.  “We do have the ability to pull the interview and the records from our online database. And with some work, we could suppress the record from Google itself so it wouldn’t come up in a search,” states Frazier.  But in a highly searchable world, Google’s willingness to remove results – even when justified by a critical need – raises eyebrows as to the impact of the company’s growing power in increasingly diverse arenas.

But what about the accuracy of what is being said?  How does an oral history project authenticate the testimonies it collects?  Of course, extensive background research, comparisons of multiple interviews, and an elongated interview process all help to cross-check for accuracy, but Solis questions the need:

There’s a difference between journalism and oral history.  We think there is meaning in all kinds of stories even if they’re inaccurate.  Why do people choose to interpret their past a certain way?  Even if it can’t be reconciled with the historical record or with fact?  We think that there is meaning in silences, when people are speaking and then they stop.  Or the way that their voices rise and fall; we find meaning in that.

Unfortunately for some of the interviewees in the Belfast Project, so do the Northern Irish Police.

Intrigued by the intersection of oral histories and video advocacy?  Keep an eye out for my upcoming post highlighting StoryCorps’ work across the US.

Corey Boling is a graduate student in Museum Anthropology at Columbia University and a Program Intern at WITNESS.

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