New York’s top court may soon make public the names of FBI informants who gave the names of New York City teachers they believed to be secret Communist Party members or sympathizers.
They “named names” in the anti-communist investigations of the 1930s through the ’50s. Some named were called before congressional committees, where they refused to testify, invoking the Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate themselves. As a result, the city Board of Education fired them.
Writer Lisa Harbatkin’s parents were among the 1,100 teachers who lost their jobs. A Freedom of Information lawsuit has gotten her the files on her parents—but the lower court, invoking privacy laws, told her it would only release 140,000 pages on other teachers if she agreed not to publish the informants’ names. She argues that the public interest and her First Amendment rights outweigh the right of privacy.
Releasing the names could bring a smaller version of the storms that engulfed Eastern and Central Europe after the fall of communism. Those countries opened secret files as part of decommunization campaigns—and many citizens of the former East Germany (for example) were shocked to learn that friends, neighbors and even spouses had willingly served as informants to the secret police.
Do we really need to reopen similar old wounds in New York?
Consider Bella Dodd — who probably “named” Harbatkin’s parents and many others.
Dodd was once chief of the communist-led New York Teacher’s Union—but she was expelled from party membership in the wake of Stalin’s post-World War II purges of “revisionists” in the Communist Party USA. Dodd’s friends and associates stopped talking to her, and she lost all the clients she’d long represented as a lawyer.
Dodd soon returned to the Catholic faith of her youth, and took her revenge on those who’d betrayed her by testifying about the CPUSA before Congress and privately naming those she knew were communists in the union she’d helped create and lead. We know she gave the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee the names of at least 100 teachers and undoubtedly handed over many more.
Who “betrayed” whom here?
The American Communist Party had a membership whose loyalty was to Moscow first and foremost, and included many teachers who sought to use their perch as a mechanism (as the late Sidney Hook argued) to propagate party doctrine among their students. They used the laws of the system they despised to protect their secret work for the communist movement.
Some who lost their jobs were good teachers who put their professional duties ahead of their loyalty to Stalin. But many others weren’t—and all refused to be honest about their own views, preferring to call themselves “progressives” and to pose as martyrs.
Many who named them, like Bella Dodd, also thought they were doing good.
There has been much healing in the years since. Decades later, the city gave restitution and formal apologies to many teachers still alive. The statute that led to dismissal of teachers who invoked the Fifth Amendment was declared unconstitutional in 1968.
In 1973, 33 teachers who had been fired were reinstated. Others followed, and (after some lawsuits) those dismissed received pensions they’d been denied. In 1982, 10 professors who had been fired from city colleges were reinstated with restitution.
Must the pendulum swing all the way to a final act of revenge? Why “name the names” of the informants now?
As a group, they were no better or worse than the communists they named, whom they thought at the time were harming America.
Is a refusal to release their names really something that interferes with Lisa Harbatkin’s rights as an American citizen?
I doubt it.