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BC legal battle to unfold before students

Judge’s hearing on IRA materials at school today

Photos by Peter Morrison/Associated Press

Helen McKendry with a family photograph showing Jean McConville, her mother who disappeared and was killed in Belfast in 1972. Police want to seize taped interviews of IRA members about the death that Boston College hoped to keep locked up.

A legal battle between the federal government, two journalists behind an oral history project involving the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and Boston College has been playing out for months in a courtroom in US District Court in Boston.

Today, in an interesting mix of timing and irony, it will play out right at Boston College, before scores of law students.

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The case is one of seven that US District Court Judge William G. Young will hear at Boston College Law School, part of a longstanding agreement he has had with the school - and other institutions in Greater Boston - to on occasion bring the courtroom setting to campus, providing students with an intimate view of legal proceedings.

In an interview, Young said that the legal arguments on complex legal issues provide students with a better understanding of the courts

“It’s the best training that law students will understand,’’ he said. “We go out there and do the work of the court.’’

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Among the cases, which include a tort claim by a man who fell over a railing in a house owned by the National Park Service, and a lawsuit filed against the Lexington school system, the legal battle between the federal government and two journalists whose project is based at Boston College is bound to garner the most attention.

“It could underline and draw attention to this,’’ said Carrie Twomey, the wife of one of the journalists, who plans to attend the hearing at the campus in Newton.

“This goes to the heart of academic freedom,’’ she said.

At issue is the federal government’s request for transcripts and recordings from the Belfast Project, an oral history project at Boston College on sectarian killings and the tumultuous time in Northern Ireland.

The British government requested the materials through a treaty with the United States that allows for the furnishing of information that would aid in a criminal investigation.

Government officials say in court records that the request relates to an investigation into the slaying of Jean McConville, a mother of 10 who disappeared in 1972 and whose body was recovered in 2003.

Former IRA members, including Belfast Project subject Dolours Price, have said that the abduction and killing of McConville was ordered by Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, which had served as the political arm of the IRA.

In a series of rulings, Young ordered the release of materials related to Price and several other subjects, saying they contained information related to the British investigation.

At first, Boston College said it would abide by Young’s decision, sparking a tiff with the journalists behind the project, Anthony McIntyre and Ed Moloney.

The journalists successfully sought a review by the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which has prohibited US officials from turning over the information to British investigators until a hearing can be held in March.

McIntyre and Moloney also filed a separate federal complaint against the US government alleging that the release of the information would not only compromise their First Amendment rights to conduct the academic work, but it would irritate politically sensitive wounds that could cause unrest in Northern Ireland.

They also said the safety of McIntyre, who lives in Northern Ireland, could be in danger because he has been labeled an informer and has been threatened before.

Jack Dunn, a spokesman for the college, has said that lawyers are reviewing Young’s most recent decision ordering the release of the information and will decide whether to appeal. He said that Boston College opposed the release of the academic work but said it has long been clear that any promises of confidentially that the journalists made to interview subjects - and which the college agreed to - were limited by what US law allows.

Moloney, the Belfast Project director, and McIntyre hope the case will provide awareness of what they called the potential curbing of academic freedom, as well as the ramifications the release of the information could have in Northern Ireland.

“This is very serious stuff,’’ Moloney said. “It may not seem so on the grounds of academia at Boston College, but it is very real.’’

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.
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