In 2007, 19-year-old MIT Media Lab student named Star Simpson went to Boston's Logan Airport to meet a friend wearing a sweater she'd decorated with LEDs in the shape of a star; the Logan police responded (with machine guns) to a call about a "dark-skinned man" with a suspicious device.
Update: Limor "Lady Ada" Fried has posted her own experience with MIT, where she, too, was punished for experimentation and art.
Simpson was arrested at gunpoint and charged with "Possession of a Hoax Device" (which Massachusetts statute defines as an "infernal machine"). Alone, far from her family in Hawai'i, and terrified, she went to the MIT administration for help. Rather than help her, the administration refused to meet with her. It was one of many ways in which MIT fucked over a young student, and a comparatively minor one. After all, the MIT press office had issued this statement while Simpson was still being questioned: "Star Simpson's actions were reckless and understandably created alarm at the airport."
I watched Simpson tell her story earlier this year at Freedom to Innovate, a conference at MIT's Media Lab, co-sponsored by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and was powerfully moved by her account of how the MIT administration's mishandling of the affair had come close to ruining her life, and did push her to drop out of university.
The event was occasioned by the announcement of the creation of a new law clinic that would reverse MIT's deplorable record for hanging out scholars and researchers to dry (part of the conference also dealt with MIT's enthusiastic complicity in the legal case against Aaron Swartz). Simpson was cautiously optimistic — though she'll likely never get an undergrad degree (much less finish the degree she started at MIT), she wanted there to be at least one positive outcome from her case: reform of MIT's propensity to side with authorities against its own students' research projects.
Now, Simpson has written a version of her talk on Medium, warning that her sources in the new clinic report hard opposition from MIT's legal counsel. Simpson's hoping to get the word out about the internal struggle and give some weight to those fighting for academic freedom.
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.
Understandably Cause for Alarm