Reporter Amit Paley recounts his discovery of Harvard’s Secret Court transcripts

How did you originally discover the Secret Court?

I was doing research in the Harvard University archives when I came across a strange entry labeled “Secret Court, 1920.” There was a short, cryptic description that raised far more questions than it answered. But it was enough to make clear that there was an incredible story buried deep in the files of the university.

In your Crimson article you mentioned that Harvard initially denied your request to review the Secret Court files. Can you speak about why they resisted and how you ultimately won the appeal?

Harvard had kept these files secret for more than 80 years and at times it seemed like the university was determined to keep them locked up forever. I first requested access to the material in March 2002, when I was a sophomore at Harvard College. According to Harvard’s rules, university records are supposed to be made public after 80 years. But because these files were determined to be “sensitive,” the archives checked with the dean of Harvard College before releasing them to me.

I was a bit stunned when the dean denied my request, but I decided to aggressively appeal his decision and, ultimately, the university convened a special committee to review the matter. It seemed antithetical to the mission of Harvard—a university whose motto is Veritas—to keep this story a secret. I was convinced that I would get the information released eventually, even if I had to petition the president of Harvard or write in The Crimson about the school’s attempt to keep the story hidden from public view.

The University redacted all student names from the documents they finally released. Can you tell us what you understand to be the rationale behind their decision, and about your process of uncovering those identities?

It seemed like a huge victory when the University finally agreed to release the documents, but the fact that the University redacted the names of all the students involved made it incredibly difficult to fully understand what happened back in 1920. Harvard argued that the redaction was necessary because the records were related to a disciplinary case. That decision didn’t make any sense to me, and I appealed it. “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,” I wrote in a letter asking for the full, un-redacted records. But my appeal was denied. Still, I realized that it was critically important to uncover the identities that the university had blocked out, so I put together a team of reporters from The Crimson to help me comb through the archives at Harvard and other local schools, as well as public records throughout the Northeast. We used yearbooks, freshman registers, birth records, maps of campus, and other documents to piece the story together. It took nearly six months but eventually I had confidence that we had accurately identified all the key
students whose identities had been redacted.

As a student enrolled at Harvard, did you feel a sense of risk or danger in exposing this information about Harvard’s past? And what were the positive or negative reactions you experienced as a result of the article? What was your communication like with relatives of the men involved?

The Harvard Crimson is an independent, student-run organization, so I knew that the newspaper would support and defend me if the administration tried to punish me for pursuing this story. The Crimson has a long tradition of challenging the Harvard administration and, in fact, during my junior year, when I became president of the newspaper, we filed a lawsuit against the school for refusing to release Harvard University Police Department records that should have been made public. So I never felt like I was in any danger. The story did spark a huge amount of attention and discussion on the Harvard campus and across the country, but aside from the daughter of one of the men involved in the case, who was upset that we were printing her father’s name, I didn’t experience any negative reactions or feedback as a result of the article.