ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) – New York’s top court on Tuesday ordered the release of more names and records to a writer whose parents were targeted by anti-communist investigators in the New York City school system 57 years ago.
The Court of Appeals, however, is still excluding informants who were promised confidentiality. The seven judges unanimously said history may at some point overtake those promises and more completely peel back the veil of secrecy from that chapter in America’s Red Scare.
“The story of the Anti-Communist Investigations, like any other that is a significant part of our past, should be told as fully and as accurately as possible, and historians are better equipped to do so when they can work from uncensored records,” Judge Robert Smith wrote. “Perhaps there will be a time when the promise made … is so ancient that its enforcement would be pointless, but that time is not yet.”
Lisa Harbatkin’s parents were among more than 1,100 teachers investigated from the 1930s to the 1960s. She has seen interview transcripts with names and personal information blacked out and is seeking complete documents under New York’s Freedom of Information Law.
City officials opposed complete disclosure for privacy reasons, offering redacted documents unless those in question or their legal heirs agreed to disclosure. As an alternative, they offered Harbatkin complete accounts if she agreed not to publish the names, a condition she rejected.
Smith noted that the city Board of Education’s investigations extended at least from 1936 to 1962 but were most intense in the 1940s and 1950s, and included documentation from about 1,100 interviews with teachers and other employees suspected of being current or former members of the Communist Party. They were promised confidentiality and were asked for the names of other staff who were party members.
The court ruled Tuesday that the names of people mentioned in the interview transcripts should no longer be withheld.
“We conclude that today, more than half a century after the interviews took place, the disclosure of the deleted information would not be an unwarranted invasion of privacy,” Smith wrote. “Certainly this was not always true. At the time of the investigations, and for some years thereafter, public knowledge that people were named as present or former Communists would have subjected them to enormous embarrassment, or worse.”
Smith wrote that they strike “a different balance” concerning the names of the interviewees who were promised no one would find out they were being interviewed. “We find it unacceptable for the government to break that promise, even after all these years.”
Harbatkin’s father, Sidney, resigned. Her mother, Margaret, told investigators she was no longer a Communist Party member and couldn’t recall who was.
The FBI file on her father, a labor organizer and Communist Party member who subsequently taught at a private school and died in 1960 from a heart condition, also has parts blacked out, including the names of the agents who investigated him, Harbatkin said. The file on her father ultimately notes he was not a security risk, she said.
Historians say the probes happened for decades across the nation at every level of government on a much larger scale than the well-known Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954. In the anti-communist fervor of the Cold War, when Harbatkin’s parents were investigated, 378 New York City teachers were dismissed, resigned or retired early, according to published reports.
Harbatkin’s attorney, Michael Grygiel, said the additional disclosure is “modest at best” and the court-approved restrictions contradict other recent case law. “The decision effectively elevates government promises of confidentiality as determinative of public disclosure under (the law),” he said.
City attorney Elizabeth Freedman said officials were pleased that promises of confidentiality given to the people who were interviewed will continue to be recognized.
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