MIT Report Finds School Remained Neutral In Swartz Case03:58

This article is more than 7 years old.

The long-awaited report from MIT on its role in the case against Aaron Swartz finds no wrongdoing by the university, but questions whether MIT should have done more to come to Swartz’s aid.

The Internet activist killed himself in January while facing felony charges for downloading millions of academic documents from the university's library.

'Neutral' Not Enough For Some

If you believe that MIT should have been neutral in a legal matter between federal prosecutors and a man who had connections to campus but wasn’t a student, then the report exonerates MIT. The university's president, Rafael Reif, says he’s glad the report sets the record straight.

"We took a position of neutrality," Reif said. "And in that position we made it very clear that we didn’t seek federal prosecution, we didn’t seek punishment and we didn’t seek jail time."

"MIT publicly weighing in against this prosecution would likely have had a tremendous impact on what the U.S. attorney’s office was doing."

Attorney Harvey Silverglate

But if you believe the university should have seen the long list of felony charges against Swartz — carrying a maximum punishment of 50 years in jail and $1 million in fines — and should have told prosecutors to take it easy on Swartz, then the report practically indicts the university for not taking a side.

"Failure to speak is not being neutral, it’s being complicit," said Charlie Furman, who is with Demand Progress, an online group Swartz founded. Furman says Swartz was acting out of idealism, believing information should be free. "If the university had said publicly, ‘We don’t want this prosecution to go forward,’ there would have been no case and Aaron would still be alive today."


Swartz’s girlfriend took it further. Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman called the report a “whitewash.” It stopped short of criticizing MIT officials for their neutrality. The report cited federal prosecutors who said the university’s opinion wouldn’t have changed their stance. But Cambridge civil rights attorney Harvey Silverglate doesn’t buy that.

"MIT publicly weighing in against this prosecution would likely have had a tremendous impact on what the U.S. attorney’s office was doing," Silverglate said.

MIT didn’t weigh in. And its report asks whether MIT should have, suggesting that MIT missed an opportunity to look at Swartz’s case not just as a narrow legal matter, but a wider issue of academic freedom and creative inquiry.

Longtime MIT computer science professor Hal Abelson led the committee that wrote the 180-page report. It ends with a list of questions on thorny policy issues going forward, such as privacy and access to information.

"A lot of what happened to MIT here is emblematic of what can happen to the university community and what is going to happen to the university community as the digital environment expands," Abelson said.

Reif says he welcomes that debate. But he’s also comfortable with the university decision to be neutral as Swartz was being investigated and prosecuted.

"The facts are the facts. I still believe that, based on what we knew, and based on interactions that we had, that that was the right call," Reif said.

The next call might be made differently. And Reif is OK with that. He says that’s exactly why he commissioned this report two days after Aaron Swartz killed himself.

This article was originally published on July 31, 2013.

This program aired on July 31, 2013.

Curt Nickisch Twitter Business & Technology Reporter
Curt Nickisch was formerly WBUR's business and technology reporter.