The Secret Court of 1920, Cont.

How We Discovered An 82-Year Secret

The following is about the reporting process behind "The Secret Court of 1920." For the article itself, click here for part I and here for part II.

This article is the result of a six-month effort by FM to obtain the secret court files of 1920. 500 pages of document were eventually released. Although the name of every student or alumnus involved in the case was blacked-out by the office of the Dean of the College, FM was able to identify the main individuals involved by combing through newspaper records, death certificates, freshman registers, student directories, class reunion reports, official student folders and other archival materials. The bulk of the material comes from a series in the University Archives catalogued as “Secret Court Files, 1920.”

The 82-year-old files have never before been made public.

“It came in as a special accession from University Hall, from a locked filing cabinet. Whoever sent it over probably didn’t even know what it was,” said Assistant Processing Archivist Andrea B. Goldstein.

The materials in the archives appear to have been written and typed by the members of The Court themselves, not their secretaries. “The handwritten notes look as if someone took scraps of paper, held it on their lap and wrote with a blunt pencil,” Goldstein said. “The letters looked like the Dean himself was typing, not a professional secretary. It was like a person typing who wasn’t used to typing.”

In March of 2002, FM first asked the University Archives for access to the files. According to a March 13, 1989 vote of the Harvard Corporation, Harvard will “ordinarily authorize the use of University records…concerning individuals which shall be more than eighty years old, or the individual being alive, after his/her decease, whichever is later.”

Although the Secret Court Files of 1920 fall outside of the 80-year restriction, because of the sensitive nature of the materials the Archives staff referred FM’s requests to Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68, whose office has jurisdiction over the files. On March 24, FM wrote to Lewis formally requesting access to the files.

Lewis denied FM’s request.

On April 20, FM sent a letter to Lewis and University Archivist Harley P. Holden, appealing the earlier decision. As a result, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and

Director of the University Library Sidney Verba convened an advisory committee—including representatives from the Office of the Governing Boards, the General Counsel’s Office, the University Archives and the Dean of Harvard College—to rule on the matter.

On May 17, the committee agreed that, provided the College verified that no student directly involved in the case is still living, FM could view a redacted set of the records. Lewis wrote that redaction would be necessary because “the records to which you requested access are related to a disciplinary case.”

On June 9, FM appealed the decision of the committee to redact the names of the students involved, arguing that the homosexuality of the students involved should not be treated as an ordinary disciplinary case. “Though the sexual orientation of those students was treated as a disciplinary case in 1920, there is nothing embarrassing or criminal about it in 2002,” FM wrote to Verba. The committee denied FM’s appeal, and the redacted files were released.

In this article, wherever the name of a student appears in direct quotation from material from the secret files, FM has substituted the redacted notation (i.e. S1) for the last name of the student (i.e. Roberts) in order to increase readability.

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