Swartz and his lawyers were not looking for a free pass. They had offered to accept a deferred prosecution or probation, so that if Swartz pulled a stunt like that again, he would end up in prison.
Marty Weinberg, who took the case over from Good, said he nearly negotiated a plea bargain in which Swartz would not serve any time. He said JSTOR signed off on it, but MIT would not.
“There were subsets of the MIT community who were profoundly in support of Aaron,” Weinberg said. That support did not override institutional interests.
When I read Tom’s piece about MIT’s President appointing a panel to study MIT’s response to Swartz, I figured that President’s haste indicated that there were some dirty hands at MIT who wanted to kick the can down the road. And what better way to do that than to follow the blue-ribbon example of Linda P.B. Katehi, still Chancellor of the UC Davis system, who used a panel to wiggle out of any accountability for her role in the pepper spraying of the Occupy protest on her campus. It doesn’t matter what the panel reports. What matters is that the panel’s report will be a long time in coming. When the report finally arrives, the outrage at those who insisted on draconian punishments for a “crime”–from which Swartz didn’t profit, which was completely non-violent, and which probably had minimal effect on the alleged victim (JSTOR)–will be attenuated by the passage at time.
This isn’t to say that MIT bears sole or even main responsibility for Swartz’ prosecution. The Department of Justice, the US Attorney for Massachusetts, Carmen Ortiz (sign a petition to get rid of her here), and a Congress so beholden to the entertainment interests that they pass laws that allow 50 year sentences for downloading are also at fault. As Lawrence Lessig points out, the bankers who almost destroyed our financial system aren’t facing anything like the punishment Swartz faced.
One more thing: there is a thread here connecting DougJ’s observation about the crypto-conservatism of totebaggers and the ability of administrators like Katehi, and perhaps some at MIT, to push off accountability with a well-written report. During my ill-spent youth at different universities, it was clear to me that a fair number of the “liberal” members of the academy would accept very weak justifications for sketchy institutional behavior as long as those justifications were whitewashed through a committee of colleagues with a good reputation. A key component of conservatism is reflexive support of current institutions. By that measure, a lot of academic totebaggers are conservatives, and I’ll bet that many of them who are proud of their past time in the protest line will find some reason to excuse MIT’s role in the bullying persecution of Aaron Swartz.