MIT may redact the names of university officials and others when releasing documents related to the Aaron Swartz case, a federal judge ruled today, saying the disclosure could expose investigators to harassment and retaliation.
In an order released Monday, U.S. District Judge Nathaniel Gorton wrote that “after weighing all of the interests at stake, (he) concludes that the estate's interest in disclosing the identity of individuals named in the production, as it relates to enhancing the public's understanding of the investigation and prosecution of Mr. Swartz, is substantially outweighed by the interest of the government and the victims in shielding their employees from potential retaliation.”
Swartz, a 26-year-old internet activist, committed suicide in January while he faced up to 35 years in jail for allegedly downloading more than 4 million JSTOR articles, some of which were behind a paywall.
“The government, MIT and JSTOR have each adduced credible evidence that individuals connected to the investigation have suffered incidents of harassment and retaliation,'' the judge wrote. "Even individuals only superficially connected to the investigation, including a relative of one of the prosecuting attorneys, have received threatening communications. Those identified threats demonstrate a strong risk that any individuals newly named in the discovery materials face potential reprisals and that their interests strongly support redaction of such identifying information.”
In a motion filed in March, lawyers for Swartz’s estate requested that the names and titles of all MIT and JSTOR employees related to the case be released, as well as those of law enforcement officials.
“Both Congress and the public at large have an important role to play in determining what conduct is considered criminal, particularly in the relatively new and rapidly evolving context of so-called ‘computer crimes,’ ” lawyers Elliot R. Peters, Daniel Purcell, and Michael J. Pineault wrote in the motion.
Later in March, MIT’s president announced the university would provide internal documents in the federal case after personal and security information was removed.
But Swartz's father, Robert Swartz, said he wanted the university to release any relevant documents. In an interview with the Globe, he said that “we believe they should release all the documents related to this case and related to Aaron, whether or not those are given to the government."
In a statement released today, MIT spokesman Nathaniel Nickerson wrote that "the court's decision will help protect the privacy and safety of the members of the MIT community."
"As previously announced, MIT will release to the public redacted versions of the documents it provided to the prosecution or defense in the case of U.S. v. Aaron Swartz," Nickerson wrote. "It will make this release at the same time it releases a report, currently being prepared by MIT faculty member Hal Abelson, that provides a thorough analysis of MIT's involvement in this case."
Before his death, US prosecutors said they would not agree to a plea deal with Swartz unless he pleaded guilty to the felony charges and served four to six months in prison. Swartz declined the deal and was expected to stand trial in April.
Since Swartz's death, MIT's computer system has been hacked at least three times.
A hoax caller in late February claimed there was a gunman on campus. The university later disclosed that the caller claimed it was in retaliation for Swartz's death.
Correspondent Todd Feathers contributed to this report. Looking for more coverage of area colleges and universities? Go to our Your Campus pages.