(CN) – Teachers who were promised confidentiality during an investigation by the New York City Board of Education into Communist Party in the 1940s are still entitled to privacy, the New York Court of Appeals ruled.
Historian Lisa Harbatkin asked the New York City Department of Records and Information Services for unredacted transcripts of the interviews, which were conducted between 1936 and 1962.
The investigation generated around 1,100 interviews, in which the interviewer would generally tell the employee that their discussion was a “matter of strict confidence” and that “there has been and will be no publicity given to the fact that you and I are having this discussion.”
Though Harbatkin says both of her parents were among those interviewed, the records department said it had to limit her access to records with names and identifying information redacted, unless the subjects agreed to disclosure.
But the information Harbatkin was cleared to see was not helpful.
The court record quotes one transcript that it says resembles many others.
“Q. I see. All right. Now let’s take this third group. Who were the members of this group that you recall?
“A. [lengthy redaction] this [redaction], you say, [redaction] — and that red-haired girl, [redaction].
“Q. That’s [redaction]?
Harbatkin filed suit after refusing the city’s offer to see unredacted copies if she not to publish them.
The county court dismissed her lawsuit to avoid an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” The Appellate Division affirmed the decision, as did the state’s highest court, the New York Court of Appeals, on Tuesday.
The Court of Appeals modified the appellate division’s ruling to include only those interviewees who were promised confidentiality.
“We find it unacceptable for the government to break that promise, even after all these years,” Judge Robert Smith wrote for the court. “We quoted earlier in the opinion from the interview of a teacher who feared that her son might learn that she was questioned about Communist activities.”
“It is unlikely that she is still alive – the interview shows that her teaching career began in 1934 or earlier – but her son may be,” Smith added. “The risk that he would be hurt or embarrassed by learning 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 her to that risk.”