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California and the West

Panel Decides Not to Issue State Files on 'Subversives'

Records: California Senate committee fears lawsuits if data, compiled from 1940-71 and known to contain falsity, are revealed. ACLU says documents should come to light.

April 14, 1998|CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Fearing that public release of moldering secret files on allegedly subversive Californians could invite costly lawsuits, state Senate leaders agreed Monday to keep the records locked up indefinitely. But they left the door open to disclosing the documents if ordered to do so by a court.

The files, dating back to the Communist-hunting era of the 1940s, are known to contain false information, rumors, examples of guilt by association and reports of spying into the private lives of citizens by now defunct legislative committees. The documents were the raw data for public reports that continued until 1971, when the last of the investigative committees was disbanded amid complaints of witch hunts.

Recently, Senate staff members began indexing the tens of thousands of loose-leaf documents stored in 80 crates at the state archives and have been awaiting a decision on whether the records should be thrown open to public inspection.

"I don't think we ought to make these public," Senate President Pro Tem John L. Burton (D-San Francisco) on Monday told members of the Rules Committee, which he chairs. The committee agreed with Burton without dissent not to disturb the records.

Burton said the documents, which contain the names of 20,000 Californians investigated from 1940 through 1971 for alleged "un-American activities," were "garbage," "drivel" and "the rankest form of hearsay."

He warned that opening the files might expose the Senate to potentially costly lawsuits for invasion of privacy filed by individuals who were investigated or their families.

However, Burton said, the Senate would be relieved of liability if a court ordered the contents made public. If a judge issued such a ruling, Burton told the committee, "the garbage is out, and we're off the hook."

In Mississippi last month, a federal court judge ordered records of the controversial Mississippi Sovereignty Commission made public after a legal fight that lasted more than two decades. The state commission, which conducted investigations of civil rights activists during the 1960s, was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi.

Monday in Los Angeles, Elizabeth Schroeder, associate director of the ACLU of Southern California, said no decision has been made on whether her organization will sue to make the California files public.

At the same time, she said, the issue is "very important" to the organization because it "involves one of the most shameful periods of U.S. history, when government agencies were spying on Americans."

"It is important for those to come to light."

Not all agree, however.

Speaking at Monday's Rules Committee hearing, Sen. Ruben Ayala (D-Chino), a member of the panel, said, "I don't know of a compelling public need at this point [to release the files].

"There hasn't been one for the past 50 years."

The California records were compiled by investigators for several legislative committees and kept confidential, although the committees issued regular public reports that, as Burton put it, were "awesome on hearsay."

The various committees' records wound up in the possession of the state Senate subcommittee on un-American activities until it was ordered out of business in 1971 by then-President Pro Tem James R. Mills (D-San Diego). He took the action after learning that Senate investigators had been spying on him.

At the time, Mills ordered the records sealed. Ever since, they have collected dust, turning yellow and deteriorating. Almost forgotten, they drew attention a couple of years ago when some academic researchers asked to examine them and were rejected.

But the request piqued the curiosity of Sen. Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), then the president pro tem. He ordered the records to be indexed and organized in case a decision was reached later to make them public.

Lockyer said Monday that he had hoped the files would be made available to "serious academic researchers." He said that at the time, his idea was that files 50 years and older should be made public but that anyone identified in them should first have to give consent before his or her name could be published.

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