A writer whose parents were targeted by anti-communist investigators in the New York City school system 57 years ago took her fight to the state's top court Wednesday, looking for the records to peel back the veil of secrecy from that chapter in America's Red Scare, including the names of informants.
Lisa Harbatkin's parents were among more than 1,100 teachers investigated from the 1930s to the 1960s. Her father resigned. Her mother told investigators she was no longer a Communist Party member and couldn't recall who was. Now Harbatkin, who plans to keep writing articles and possibly a book about it, has asked New York's Court of Appeals to uphold her Freedom of Information Law request to see 140,000 pages of documents with nothing blacked out.
Lower courts upheld the city decision to let Harbatkin see files on her parents, Sidney and Margaret Harbatkin. But, citing privacy concerns, officials offered access to the rest only on the condition she doesn't record or publish names.
The investigations came during an era of renewed fears that Communists were infiltrating all walks of American life, concerns that gained the national stage with hearings conducted by U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. Thousands of Americans, including entertainers, teachers, union activists and government employees, were scrutinized and often accused of being Communists or sympathizers.
Harbatkin's attorney, Michael Grygiel, argued Wednesday that the public interest outweighs privacy issues and the city's restrictions violate her free speech rights.
"There is no longer any realistic basis for the consideration that the disclosure of the names of the parties or the informants ... could realistically result in personal hardship whether economic, social ostracism or any other type of measure because of the passage of time," he said.
New York City Assistant Corporation Counsel Elizabeth Freedman countered that people were routinely promised confidentiality when they talked to investigators, and that should continue, even after death. She said most of the information is already available to Harbatkin, that some people didn't want their families to know, and that the city is offering Harbatkin more access than required under the law.
Harbatkin said she has heard from several families who also want the information disclosed.
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.
"He was no threat. They knew it," 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 The New York Times.
"In terms of numbers, state and local issues affected many more people," said Beverly Gage, a Yale professor and historian who said New York was one of the "pioneers" in launching those investigations. She said there was a series of teacher purges starting after World War I. "It was often, as this case suggests, carried out through relatively secret measures."
"I think that to really understand how these mechanisms work, how deeply personal many of these entanglements were, we really do need to be able to see what was happening and so it's really critical to the study of history to know these sorts of details," Gage said. "It also is a kind of lens onto a genuine radical culture that once existed in New York. There was a vibrant Communist Party in New York in the `30s and `40s."
Richard Hamm, professor of history and public policy at the State University at Albany, points out that former East German secret police files, including the names of informants, were released after the Iron Curtain fell. He acknowledged that historians as a group want information disclosed.
"I understand that people will be hurt, but there is a balancing act," he said.
The court is expected to rule in about a month.