THE GREAT PINK SCARE

Privacy: Then & Now

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A middle-aged man, with receding hair, gray at the temples, wearing horn-rimmed glasses, a camel-colored sports coat and dark dress shirt, stands in front of a large piece of modern art and smiles at the camera 

Black and white photo from a magazine cover depicts a shirtless young man with an athletic build leaning back in a Greek god-like-pose, his torso slightly twisted, his head looking downward

A middle-aged man, with graying hair, a receding hairline, wearing a dark suit jacket, white dress shirt and dark tie, he smiles, closed-mouthed, a classical painting in the background

I thought sharing photos was unwise, considering the laws.  But it never occurred to me that it could be fatal.		––Joel Dorius

On Labor Day weekend in 1960, Massachusetts state police troopers swept through the small, idyllic town of Northampton and hauled 15 men off to jail. Three of them were professors at Northampton’s elite Smith College.

THE GREAT PINK SCARE tells the story of the devastating persecution that followed, when the three Smith professors were charged with possessing and dispersing obscene literature, tried in Northampton District Court, and eventually convicted as felons.

1960s black and white photo shows a man in a dark suit and tie, surrounded by open boxes filled with film reels, books and papers. He is holding up a reel pulling a strip of film from the spool, and looking at the negative in the light.
Officer John J. Regan, Massachusetts State Police, examining confiscated films Photo courtesy of Boston Public Library, Photo Collection

"Police Break Up Major Homosexual Smut Ring!" screamed newspaper headlines, first in Boston, then across the country and even internationally.

On the surface, it was the routing out of pornographers, but in reality, it was a McCarthy-like witch-hunt against homosexuals.

The alleged ringleader, Professor Newton Arvin, was considered America's finest literary critic. The other two accused were Smith junior faculty members Joel Dorius and Ned Spofford. All three lost their jobs.

Through interviews, archival film and commentary, audiences learn the fates of the Smith professors, who never recovered from the scandal. Arvin, who was Truman Capote's great love, became suicidal and was hospitalized at the Northampton State Mental Hospital. He chose not to appeal his conviction and died of cancer just three years later. Dorius and Spofford struggled to overturn their convictions. Eventually, their criminal records were erased but the stigma remained. Both Spofford and Dorius, who died in early 2006, were in and out of mental hospitals for years, and never recovered their once-promising academic careers.

In the end, brilliant careers were destroyed and young lives ruined. The issues raised then about privacy rights and civil liberties still reverberate in American society today, more than 40 years later. In a time when Brokeback Mountain, a film about gay cowboys, dominated the national discussion and earned crossover acclaim and audiences, THE GREAT PINK SCARE is a sobering reminder of the struggle for acceptance in both the past and present.

Learn about the history of privacy rights in the U.S. >>

Read the filmmaker Q&A >>

Top photos (L-R):
Ned Spofford (1984)
Example of materials confiscated during pornography raids, courtesy of Cornell University Library
Joel Dorius (1984)
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