Exploration Doesn’t Merit Incarceration

MIT has not yet issued a summons charging as felons two graduate students who were found in NW16 on the night of Saturday, June 7.

Unlike last time — in February 2007, when we found out about charges filed in November 2006 over an October incident in the Faculty Club — it is not yet too late to stop another terrible mistake which will sour the relationship among students, the MIT Police, administrators, and the courts, a mistake which could irreparably damage students’ futures.

Administrators should act swiftly to make sure that summonses are not issued, and they should act to have the district attorney drop charges pressed against a third student, Michael P. Short G.

The students do not seem to have committed the felony of “breaking and entering with intent to commit a felony,” with which Short is charged; police have not explained what felony Short meant to commit. (The police report suggests they think Short meant to steal “parts.”) Police would have to prove he intended to steal from NW16 in order for the other felony charge he faces, “possession of burglarious instruments,” to hold water.

We do not think that these students are thieves. But we also think that judgments like this should not be tried in the press or the courts; judging the ethics of the students’ actions should be a matter for MIT’s Committee on Discipline. The Brandeis University graduate student traveling with Short should be handled by that university’s Student Conduct System.

Short allegedly used a piece of an aluminum can — traditionally called a “shim” — to open a combination lock attached to a cage in the NW16 basement. Police, alerted by a motion-triggered alarm, found the three students in the cage. Although the police report says there’s a history of theft in NW16, the list of possessions checked in as evidence upon Short’s arrest doesn’t seem to include any NW16 property.

The arrest is especially jarring because one of Short’s companions is a graduate student in the Plasma Science and Fusion Center, which is housed in NW16. And Short himself works in NW22, just two doors down. (The Brandeis graduate student is Short’s girlfriend.)

You should expect to get in trouble at MIT if police find you looking around a place that was supposed to be locked. But you shouldn’t face a felony conviction or years in prison for those actions.

MIT should be reasonable and get the courts out of the equation. Any ethical lapse on the students’ part should be judged by MIT’s and Brandeis’s disciplinary processes.

To be sure, we have recently criticized the MIT Committee on Discipline for the secretive nature of its rulings and guidelines. By way of contrast, we praise Brandeis’s Department of Student Development and Conduct, which has for three years provided case-by-case summaries of every incident it hears and every outcome. (For instance, see http://www.brandeis.edu/studentlife/sdc/stats/summaries-06.html.) Despite our misgivings about the MIT system, we still trust its judgment far more than the outcome of the Massachusetts criminal courts.

After the fiasco of the fall 2006 arrests, we had hoped things would be different. We had hoped the MIT administration would value its relationship with students, alumni, and faculty who support the Institute’s hacking tradition and respect its established disciplinary processes. We had hoped that a year’s worth of discussion about reasonable treatment of hackers would be fruitful, and that the new “official statement on hacking” would help students avoid felony charges for exploration.

But in the week following the incident, The Tech found key administrators, including Chancellor Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75, seemingly unaware that a student had been arrested. And arresting officer Duane R. Keegan, who filed the complaint that led to Michael Short’s felony charges, was one of the two officers responsible for the ill-considered fall 2006 felony charges against students found in the Faculty Club.

If MIT wants us to believe that its stance towards hacking has changed in two years, it must act immediately to get the charges against Short dismissed. Otherwise, the message will be clear: hackers will be treated as felons.