On January 13, Bay State Examiner reporters Maya and Andrew joined a small rally outside the Moakley federal courthouse in Boston to honor the memory of Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide on January 11 of last year, and to demand accountability for the government attorneys who wrongfully prosecuted him.
One of the protest organizers hand delivered a petition to the courthouse calling for the resignation of U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz and Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Heymann, the lawyers responsible for prosecuting Swartz.
Aaron Swartz was a programmer and open information activist. He helped write the code for RSS, which is still widely used, at the age of fourteen. He also played a role in founding the popular website Reddit and founded Demand Progress.
Swartz committed suicide on January 11, 2013 while he was under the intense pressure of being prosecuted by the federal government for multiple felony charges. Swartz had downloaded articles from JSTOR, a database of scholarly documents, and he intended to publish them free of charge.
When Swartz was arrested, he agreed to destroy the articles and not publish them and JSTOR did not seek to have criminal charges brought against him. However, federal prosecutors charged him with wire fraud and 11 counts of breaching of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).
Swartz's girlfriend Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman said that Swartz could not afford the legal cost of taking his case to trial and did not feel comfortable asking others for money. If Swartz took his case to trial and lost, he faced up to 35 years in prison and a $1 million dollar fine.
Swartz killed himself just days after the government refused to accept a plea bargain allowed him to avoid serving any time in prison.
His family and girlfriend placed some blame for Swartz's death on the government. In their official statement, Swartz's family said that "Aaron's death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach."
Department of Homeland Security prevents recording inside Moakley Courthouse
During the protest, we entered the Moakley courthouse to to document what the petition being handed in with our video cameras.
As soon as we entered, we were approached by two men who appeared to be with the Federal Protective Service, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security. They told us that we would either have to leave the building or shut our cameras off.
When Andrew asked if there was a law prohibiting video-recording, one of the men responded by threatening us.
"Yes, it is [a law]. If you want me to charge you with it, I will," he said.
We exited the lobby of the building as instructed. While we were still in the entrance, we asked for the names of the two men who had ejected us from the building. Neither of them told us, but one of them began shoving Maya until we had left the entrance.
When we entered the building, it was our understanding that we were prohibited from recording inside a federal courtroom, but we were unsure of whether or not we could record in other parts of the building such as the lobby.
There was a Federal Protective Service officer standing outside the building who appeared to see us as we entered, but he made no attempt to stop us.
There were no signs on the outside of the court building indicating that cameras were not allowed inside. The website for the building does not mention the camera policy either.
The Department of Homeland Security website states that "Except where security regulations, rules, orders, or directives apply or a Federal court order or rule prohibits it, persons entering in or on Federal property may take photographs of... [b]uilding entrances, lobbies, foyers, corridors, or auditoriums for news purposes" which contradicts the claims of the officer who stated that we were prohibited by law from recording inside the courthouse.
After we had left the building, we asked the Federal Protective Service officer who was standing near the entrance if he could give us the names of the two men who had ejected us from the building. He claimed that he didn't know who they were and he refused to enter the building and ask them for us. Maya asked him why cameras were prohibited from the courthouse, but all he said was "No comment."
Later, we saw the two men who ejected us standing outside near the entrance to the building and we again asked them for their names.
The individual who threatened to arrest Andrew identified himself as Commander Palmer. When asked what his first name was, he claimed it was "Commander."
The individual who pushed Maya refused to provide his name.
Neither of the men were wearing name tags or badges.