Copyright © 2012 Lisa Harbatkin
I wasn’t sure, at all, what I was getting into when I requested and got my parents’ files from the Anti-Communist Series investigations held by New York City’s Municipal Archives. They were teachers, caught up with over a thousand others in New York’s 1950s drive to get communists out of its public school system.
Thanks to those New York files and my father’s FBI file, I’ve added a lot to my memories of my parents as teachers, and as members of the Teachers Union and the Communist Party. I’ve also gone way beyond my family’s story, as one thing after another led me deeper into the details of what happened to teachers and other civil servants in New York and many other cities in the 1950s.
This blog will be adding to the history at the web site www.dreamersandfighters.com, which also has video clips from a planned documentary and current developments relating to the teacher investigations. The focus at Dreamers & Fighters and here at Snoops & Secrets is on taking a clear look at what happened to thousands of lower and mid-level government employees during the McCarthy years.
Along the way, it will also explore the joys of prying information, on those investigations and others, out of government agencies, especially when the information tends to make the agencies look worse than the people under investigation. That’s the case with the New York teachers. A decade before Freedom of Information legislation (FOIA) the teachers and their supporters were making the case for civil liberties and open records while the Board of Education and the city’s Law Department twisted themselves into pretzels trying to insist they were saving democracy while violating some of its basic tenets.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and a half-century or so of FOIA. You can get a lot of good information by filing FOIA requests, but both federal and state FOIA processes are ludicrously cumbersome. And FOIA exemptions are pretty much designed to let any agency deny you anything it feels like denying you. They gotta let you have something, but if they don’t wanna give it to you, for whatever reason, there’s a FOIA exemption that says you ain’t gonna get it.
That’s proved true in a court case I filed (briefs and decisions at www.dreamersandfighters.com/current.aspx#court ) demanding that the Municipal Archives open full access to that Anti-Communist Series without forcing researchers to sign away their First Amendment rights. For its part, the FBI is equally touchy, especially on identifying informants and other people.
The inherent and unavoidable tension between privacy and open records is no excuse for what government agencies choose to hold back, whether under FOIA exemptions or by trying to impose prior restraint on what researchers can publish.
In any case, there are open materials on the New York teacher investigations at the Municipal Archives and at other archives, along with records on what happened in other cities. We’ll be exploring much of that information here…..