Publication Date

July 7, 2015


Legal, Public History

On June 10, the chief judge of the Northern District of Illinois granted a petition to unseal the records of a 1942 grand jury proceeding in response to a suit brought by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) in November 2014. The AHA was a co-petitioner in the suit. The government has 60 days to decide whether to appeal.

The order compels the government to release the transcripts of witness testimony given during a grand jury investigation of the Chicago Tribune for alleged violations of the Espionage Act. The paper printed a front-page story that appeared to be based on leaked information. The story suggested that the Navy knew in advance about an upcoming attack by the Japanese navy, which the government feared revealed the highly classified information that the US had broken Japanese codes. The investigation, which did not result in any indictments, was widely publicized at the time. The suit argued that the transcripts should be unsealed due to the considerable historical and public interest in the case.

Grand jury records are permanently sealed unless they are opened through a court order. The AHA has been a co-petitioner in similar cases in the past, including a petition to unseal Watergate grand jury records, brought by Public Citizen Litigation Group and historian Stanley Kutler, and a petition to unseal records in the Rosenberg case, brought by the National Security Archive at George Washington University. Courts appear to be willing to unseal grand jury records when broad coalitions of historians, archivists, and journalists agree that the testimony is of historical significance and that releasing it would be in the public interest. Signing on to such cases is an important way in which the AHA fulfills its mission of ensuring access to the historical record.

The RCFP is a nonprofit association dedicated to providing free legal assistance to journalists. The National Security Archive, the Naval Historical Foundation, the Naval Institute Press, the Organization of American Historians, and the Society of Military History were also petitioners in the suit.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.