Copyright © 2012 Lisa Harbatkin
By asserting third-party privacy for the teachers investigated by the Board of Education, the Municipal Archives succeeded in making the issue, and my court case, about names. And New York’s Court of Appeals fell for it, ruling that records of teachers promised “confidentiality” when they were questioned by investigators can remain hidden. Indefinitely, apparently.
Now, unlike today’s researchers, investigators back then were really just after names, after more teachers they could toss out of the schools. “Promising” not to name those called in encouraged alleged or actual communists to resign, getting them out of the schools. An added bonus was saving the city the costs of departmental trials.
Confidentiality was a tactic, not a long-term promise.
The proof is in the Municipal Archives records – those that contain no names or the names of teachers whose names were all over the newspapers during the investigations. These records are open. Let’s take a look.
Saul Moskoff jotted down a few notes to himself, likely in the spring of 1955 as HUAC was preparing to hear testimony from New York undercover detective Mildred Blauvelt. He was especially concerned that committee members not ask Blauvelt to publically reveal any teachers’ names. His handwritten notes were essentially an outline for two memos that preceded Blauvelt’s HUAC appearance. Point by point:
“Success of invest. thus far has been due to secrecy.
Won’t resign if they know names are to be made public.
Difficulty of presenting legal proof.” *
The follow-on memos, in April and May, and other items in the Municipal Archives and the National Archives follow the script. So in an April 21, 1955 memo to the corporation counsel, Moskoff wrote: “We have found that if Communist teachers know that they will be the subject of publicity they will use every device to thwart dismissal but will resign if no publicity is given. We encourage resignation because it dispenses with the expense and difficulties of trials and at the same time protects the identities of other teachers who, while once Party members, have since demonstrated their complete loyalty to our democratic institutions and spares them from the smear and pillory of the Communists who would denounce them as rats, stool pigeons, and spies.” * He concluded by asking that the CC urge the committee not to require Blauvelt to name “teachers either now under investigation or who have resigned while under investigation. Of course, we would be willing to reveal the names of those who stood trial and were dismissed.” * This, of course, this was a spectacularly meaningless offer, since the names of the teachers subjected to the departmental trials were regularly in the newspapers.
A long May 2, 1955 memo summarizing a conversation he had with HUAC chief clerk Thomas W. Beale, Sr. about the need to withhold names during Blauvelt’s planned appearance (apparently written by Moskoff but referring to himself as SM), contained another little gem: “…and in some of the cases the legal proof sufficient to sustain the charges was not present although for all practical purposes membership in the Communist Party was apparent.” *
We can also go back further. In a November 30, 1953 letter, Moskoff wrote to New York Daily Mirror columnist Edward Zeltner thanking him for something he’d written about Moskoff and the teacher investigations: “I am particularly appreciative …that you as a newspaper man recognize the effectiveness of the policy of my investigation to retain in confidence the names of those under investigation. It might interest you to know that this policy has led to a financial saving to the city in that teachers who might otherwise face charges and trial with the accompanying expense have instead resigned to avoid the publicity.” *
Confidentiality was a tactic, not a long-term promise.
* Accessed at New York City’s Municipal Archives
So what was essentially blackmail on the part of a government employee is now being used as an excuse to withhold information that has a public interest aspect? Lisa, I hope there are still avenues to pursue this.
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