A federal judge has rejected attempts by the estate of the late Aaron Swartz to disclose confidential court documents that could have revealed key details about MIT's role in his prosecution.
U.S. District Judge Nathaniel Gorton in Boston ruled today that the possibility of violence aimed at MIT officials -- some have reportedly received threats, and the campus was locked down in February after a gunman hoax -- outweighed the public's right to access court records that would have identified which professors, university attorneys, or staff members were involved.
"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," Gorton wrote (PDF).
MIT, JSTOR, and the U.S. Attorney's office headed by Carmen Ortiz had requested that the court not permit the disclosure of the identities of anyone who worked at any of those organizations.
The judge did agree to modify the current protective order to disclose certain documents after redactions were completed, which was not opposed by MIT, JSTOR, or prosecutors. Gorton gave everyone involved in the litigation until May 27 to propose a modification to the protective order. (MIT has previously agreed to release those redacted documents.)
Swartz was accused of 13 felony counts relating to connecting a computer to MIT's network without authorization and retrieving over 4 million academic journal articles from the JSTOR database. He was allowed to access JSTOR, but not to perform a bulk download.
Ortiz, the U.S. Attorney, compared Swartz to a common criminal in a 2011 press release. "Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar," Ortiz said at the time. In January, less than three months before the criminal trial was set to begin, Ortiz's office formally rejected a deal that would have kept Swartz out of prison. Two days later, Swartz committed suicide.
Gorton's written opinion, which noted that a congressional investigation in Ortiz's conduct is also under way, highlighted possible threats associated with the public backlash against Ortiz and her fellow prosecutors:
At approximately the same time Congress and the media began to scrutinize Mr. Swartz's prosecution, employees of the government, MIT and JSTOR were subjected to a variety of threats and harassing incidents by individuals purportedly retaliating in the name of Mr. Swartz. Both the government and MIT suffered intrusions into their respective computer networks, resulting in outages to MIT's email system and a compromise of the website of the United States Sentencing Commission. Employees of the United States Attorney's Office and MIT who were in some way associated with Mr. Swartz's case received threatening communications.