Sticks and stones might break your bones, but on college campuses in the Northeast, words can get you expelled. Our three academic Muzzle Award winners this year differ in size, but one thing they share is a chilling atmosphere for free speech.
Boston College may claim devotion to academic freedom, but this campus is no safe enclave for scholars or journalists.
BC agreed back in 2001 to house the Belfast Project, a collaborative undertaking by former IRA member Anthony McIntyre and journalist Ed Moloney. The project is an attempt to capture the oral history of the Irish Troubles from the mouths of those who participated in the fighting. This historically vital attempt to record firsthand accounts hinged on a lifetime promise of confidentiality conferred on the interviewees, who were, after all, talking about their involvement in a violent uprising — and didn't want to be pegged as either informants or conspirators. So McIntyre and Moloney assured participants that the tapes would be sealed until they had died.
But the Police Service of Northern Ireland had other plans, and in May 2011 it requested through the US-UK Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty that the Department of Justice subpoena the tapes as part of a reopened investigation into the 1972 murder of suspected informant Jean McConville. While BC initially supported Moloney and McIntyre by arguing that the subpoena violated their academic freedom, the administration quickly folded in the face of federal District Judge William Young's ruling enforcing the government's subpoena, leaving Moloney and McIntyre to appeal the ruling themselves before the First Circuit Court of Appeals. According to the Boston Globe, court records show that Moloney did indeed sign a contract with BC saying he would only promise his sources confidentiality "to the extent American law allows" — but he omitted this caveat in the actual agreement his sources signed. Of course, this did not relieve BC of its obligation to fight for confidentiality and to protect its academic researchers' rights.
Young did concede that, in theory, scholars have a privilege of confidentiality similar to that enjoyed by reporters. BC could and should have fought tooth and nail before the Court of Appeals to ensure that scholars in its own employ could conduct vital, confidential research without fear of being enlisted to assist law enforcement authorities. Instead, the BC administration effectively excommunicated the researchers.
Bridgewater State has recently joined in the "We're all for free speech but. . ." chorus.
Student newspaper the Comment came under fire in April for publishing the name of an alleged student rape victim, as well as additional publicly available information about her. While it's standard journalistic practice to withhold the names of victims in most circumstances, in this case the alleged victim had already gone public: she had told her story, amplified by a megaphone, to roughly 200 attendees at the school's open-to-all "Take Back the Night" event. Her name had also appeared on publicity documents for the event, which according to takebackthenight.org is dedicated to "break[ing] the silence" surrounding sexual assault.