Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Scoundrel Time Not Yet Past

The New York Court of Appeals has held that an historian is entitled to transcripts of interviews conducted by the Board of Education exploring Communist activities of New York City teachers.

The court concluded that the access will not include materials where the interviewee was promised confidentiality:

...the diminished claims of privacy must be weighed against the claims of history. The story of the Anti-Communist Investigations, like any other significant part of our past, should be told as fully as possible, and historians are better equipped to do so when they can work from uncensored records. Petitioner, or any other historian trying to trace the course of the investigation, would obviously face a serious handicap if required to work with the redacted transcipt from which we quoted above.

We strike a different balance, however, when we consider petitioner's request for the names of interviewees who were promised that 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. We quoted earlier in this opinion from an interview of a teacher who feared her son might learn she was being questioned about Communist activities. It is unlikely she is still alive --the interviews show that her teaching career began in 1934 or earlier -- but her son may be. The risk that he would be hurt or embarrassed by learining now of his mother's interview may be small, but a representative of New York City's government solemnly assured her that the government would not subject him to that risk. Perhaps there will be a time when the promise made to her, and others similarly situated, is so ancient that its enforcement would be pointless, but that time is not yet.

The Board of Education investigation into teachers with supposed communist ties began as early as 1936 and continued as late as 1962. Most of the 1,100 interviews took place in the 1940s and 1950s. (Mike Frisch) 


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