Understandably Cause for Alarm

MIT should be in support of a new student law clinic, but the program’s future is unclear.

A few months ago I went back to campus at MIT to deliver a talk at a conference, co-sponsored by the EFF, called Freedom to Innovate. The conference was a discussion on defending student tinkerers, as well as the low-key launch event for a new student legal clinic which might be able to help MIT students with legal issues they encounter. The clinic will be the first such organization to exist at MIT in recent memory.

I was asked to go speak because of an outfit I wore in 2007. Specifically, an outfit I chose at 6AM on a Friday in 2007, three weeks into the beginning of my sophomore year — right as the first nip of fall was starting to arrive in the air in Boston. Sweater weather. I was spending every waking minute of my life doing what I loved and cared about the most: taking advantage of the shot I’d been given to learn how to build things through studying electrical engineering, at one of the finest institutions for doing so in the world. I augmented my learning with a research job building cutting-edge smart wearables at the MIT Media Lab. In celebration of those two facts, I made myself a sweater jacket decorated with a few LEDs in the shape of a star.

These days, it’s not so unusual for someone to sometimes wear LEDs, at festivals or on Lupita or Kanye. Back in 2007, I felt like the sole owner of a garment unlike any other in the world.

So, that’s the one that I picked out to wear on Friday morning, when I went to meet my boyfriend at the baggage claim at Boston/Logan International Airport, inbound on a redeye from California to visit me.

“A Dark-Skinned Male is Roaming the Airport”

The phone call to the police allegedly went, “A dark-skinned male is roaming the airport” (well, I had really, really short hair.) So from right there, you know things didn’t go that well for me. “He has a device strapped to his chest.”

To put it mildly, my airport errand ended in tears. Beyond tears. I was arrested by a cadre of Boston Logan State Police officers. “Arrested,” as used in that sentence, is a good short euphemism that easily glosses over the details so that I don’t have to re-live: feeling startled as my hands are grabbed from behind me, or my arms getting wrenched above my shoulders, while men in black clutching MP5 submachine guns swarmed around me (I would learn later that the MP5 is carefully designed to be useful for gunning down individual human beings at short range in sensitive situations— like in crowds, for example.)

“Luckily she followed our instructions, so she ended up in our cell, as opposed to the morgue.” said Major Scott Paré of the Boston Logan state police, to CNN and Fox News cameras that morning, explaining why I ought to feel lucky about how my day went. Well, I’ve had better first introductions. Thanks, Major Paré, for not killing me dead!

Incidentally, I can assure you that none of my plans for that day involved getting arrested at gunpoint (not even as contingency!) While pondering my plans to see my boyfriend and turn in my problem sets, let us be clear, I definitely did not set out to get taken to court, nor to be so overwhelmed by juggling my classes and my court dates that I would end up dropping out of the dream school that I worked hard for 10 years to get into and then accepting a plea deal just so that I could leave Massachusetts. While pondering the time-table for the airport bus, I totally failed to think of setting aside the time I’d need for becoming mired in a court case that would outlast the entire rest of my sophomore year, or for the years it would take me to feel safe again in any US city that had police.

An Infernal Machine

The case itself was pretty rough too. I had no real idea what to expect from a court of law such as the East Boston District Court, but being a person with an interest in reason and logic, I assumed that these would ultimately prevail in courtrooms (because why wouldn’t it? I was 19 years old.) I figured the court would quickly realize that the charges of Possession of a Hoax Device levered against me were nonsense. (A hoax device, for what it’s worth, is specifically defined in Massachusetts as an “infernal machine”; now you know as well as I do how to spot a hoax device! If you see something, say something.) Clearly this was all just a huge misunderstanding that would quickly get resolved and go away. Right? “They must be able to see that this doesn’t make any sense.” I thought at the time. “I’m sure this will all be over soon.”

Months wore forward, and so did the international media juggernaut covering the situation. Public opinion would not let my case just end so easily. What to do? My lawyers asked me what I wanted to do. The press declared that since I was lucky enough to attend a school like MIT, I must have come from a fancy family of some sort with the kind of parents who would surely hire PR people and/or somehow strong-arm this kind of thing into a favorable outcome for me — stoking classic town & gown dissent, selling newspapers. I liked the picture they painted so much that I almost wished it was the family I had.

In real life, my parents were over five thousand miles away. Nor would closing the distance have helped much since, in their years of experience running a two-person jewelry business in Hawaii, they didn’t have any idea who I should ask for help, either.

So, I went directly to the best place I could think of: the very first place I walked to after I was let free, was the Office of the President at MIT. (In loco parentis, right?) But I was stopped at the door. She wouldn’t see me or talk to me. Liability, and all. The potential cost of giving me any legal advice or talking to her directly about anything, would simply be too great. So MIT found the protection it sought, while I did not.

I would have been grateful to ask questions of someone. Was I actually going to go to prison? What were my options? Should I, in the great American tradition, try to sue somebody? What would accepting a plea deal mean? Was it a good plea deal? Should I keep going with the case, instead? On top of having nobody to turn to, I was disallowed from talking about the case in public. Someone needed to make those decisions and I was completely on my own. Honestly I just wanted it all to be over, but that option was mostly unavailable. I just want you to consider for a moment asking the nearest 19-year-old with no prior interest in nor experience at all with the law for guidance on what to do with any court case. You can tell me how it goes.

Truth

Back to that Friday morning. When the story first broke, the rumors of an MIT student arrested at gunpoint at the airport caused a spew of confusion, as everyone, including me, tried to figure out what was happening. Rumors spread rapidly in the absence of fact. People began reaching out to each other to find out more, to learn something about who I might be and what happened. The MIT community in particular came together to understand. MIT alumni have seen and heard enough to know when one of its own might need protecting.

But that potential groundswell rose and fell before I ever knew about it, handily crushed by a single statement published before I was even released from questioning by the police, and well before I appeared before a judge. Because MIT released this statement:

Star Simpson’s actions were reckless and understandably created alarm at the airport. — MIT News Office, Sep 21 2007

Reckless. Reckless. I got emails, later, from MIT alum telling me that they’d been prepared to come out to support me, and were ready and willing to help defend against this nonsense—but that when MIT released this statement, it changed their minds.

reckless — marked by unthinking boldness; with defiant disregard for danger or consequences; (Webster’s)

MIT, bastion of scientific inquiry, symbol of the search for truth. September 21st 2007 was a day the Institute elected to publish an authoritative prejudicial statement.

Reckless

That said: today, my case is over. It’s been done for a long time. There’s no way that MIT can fix the massive damage those statements caused, and though MIT’s administration has not, to date, apologized, I’m not asking for them to here. What I am asking is that MIT fix its approach and stand behind the people who make its community what it is, and as part of that, commit to providing support in the inevitable future situations when they occur.

MIT has so far learned some lessons about speaking publicly on the subject of ongoing (much less breaking or unfolding cases) from what happened with me, although not the right ones: the new policy is that MIT refuses to comment at all. This reveals MIT’s outlook on supporting students: stay silent. Rather than an MIT that merely avoids criticizing its own community in public I would like to see an MIT that used its name and reputation to stand by and speak up for creators, instead.

It has taken me quite a long time to be able to talk about what happened to me out loud, much less in public. I am speaking up now because I don’t think I’m the last person from MIT who will create something new and technological which is misunderstood or seen the wrong way by the police, by authoritarians gripped by the “anti-terrorist” fervor that seems largely to turn non-white people into targets, by the the MIT administration, by prosecutors, by the courts, by large corporations, by the public or the press.

The very purpose of MIT is to develop technology that goes beyond what the public already understands and is comfortable with. When young students, or even experienced faculty, accomplish that purpose, MIT should have resources already arranged to help them with the inevitable physical, emotional, legal and PR turmoil that can result.

It’s happened before—too often. Limor Fried, Dave LaMacchia, Jeremy Rubin, Zack Anderson, Bunnie Huang, are just the handful of brilliant people who had to fight alone to defend things they created using technology, that I can remember offhand. It will happen again.

I believe that MIT has a moral responsibility to its community and to the greater intellectual community to do better by its creative constituency than it has.

I believe that you cannot foster the highly unique type of environment that MIT has, where ideas are free to expand, be explored, without also providing some form of backing for the inevitable consequences of that kind of freedom. I believe that if MIT does not change its ways, the MIT we know and rely on for training innovators will cease to be effective in this role, and that we will all be worse off for that.

If institutions like MIT are unwilling to stand by members of its community, we are all going to be poorer for it. In those conditions, our free and inventive culture will remain neither safe nor structurally sound.

Part of the trouble here is that legal liability can be estimated in dollar figures, and MIT, the corporation, acts to protect itself in view of the risk of such costs. But the damage that fear has on a creative environment such as MIT’s is incalculable. And what happens at MIT has a ripple effect throughout the world.

I propose that MIT make a shift in its stance. MIT must find a way to value the culture that its name stands for. The current take-least-action policies of the General Counsel’s Office need to be weighed as costs also, accounting for the long-term impact that it has. Innovation is not (should not be) solely measured in terms of lucrative filed IP. Upstream from that, is an even more precious environment for experimenting. Legally protecting members of the MIT community is fundamental to protecting MIT the institution long-term. MIT must be aware of what it stands to lose if it does not.

When I spoke to the organizers of the student clinic at MIT, it sounded to me like there’s still a very real risk that MIT will try to remain unchanged, when the services of a law clinic for students are so needed. MIT needs to change this, and provide internal support the student legal clinic.

Providing support in the form of the student legal clinic is not just advisable, but necessary for MIT to protect its creative culture and continue to do and invent great things. It would be short-sighted and dangerous to the long-term survival of the Institute and all it stands for—even, reckless, not to.