Sociologists and other researchers can offer confidentiality in consent forms but whether this promise would stand up in court is another question:
Researchers who conduct oral history have no right to expect courts to respect confidentiality pledges made to interview subjects, according to a brief filed by the U.S. Justice Department on Friday.
The brief further asserts that academic freedom is not a defense to protect the confidentiality of such documents.
With the filing, the U.S. government has come down firmly on the side of the British government, which is fighting for access to oral history records at Boston College that authorities in the U.K. say relate to criminal investigations of murder, kidnapping and other violent crimes in Northern Ireland. The college has been trying to quash the British requests, arguing that those interviewed as part of an archive on the unrest in Northern Ireland were promised confidentiality during their lifetimes…
Many historians have been backing Boston College in the case. Clifford M. Kuhn, a historian at Georgia State University who is a past president of the Oral History Association, filed an affidavit on behalf of Boston College in which he said that if Britain’s request is granted, the field of oral history could be damaged.
This is part of a long-running battle involving researchers and courts. Some of this is covered in the 2000 piece “Don’t Talk to the Humans.” When I’ve used this particular article in class, students always ask why researchers don’t have the same legal rights regarding confidentiality that journalists have.
Whenever these sorts of cases pop up, it always seems like we get the slippery slope argument: if they start with oral histories, how long until there is no confidentiality in other forms of research? In the meantime, we’ll have to see whether this goes beyond just this one brief.