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The NSA's Next Move: Silencing University Professors?

A Johns Hopkins computer science professor blogs on the NSA and is asked to take it down. I fear for academic freedom.

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Why is Johns Hopkins simultaneously saying that the event was internal to the university (that the request didn't come from the government) andthat it doesn't know how the whole thing began? The dean of the engineering school doesn't know who contacted him about a professor's blog post? Really? The press office doesn't know how to get in touch with the dean? Seems unlikely. Johns Hopkins spokesman Dennis O'Shea told me this morning that university officials "were still trying to trace" the events back to their source. Clearly, there's a lot more to the story.

Matthew Green  said the original request to take down his post could have referred to his site and the site hosted on Johns Hopkins servers. Since a request to unpublish your thoughts is one of the most extreme and threatening that any university can make of a faculty member, what kind of deliberation went into it? That Johns Hopkins backtracked so quickly after the press started asking questions suggests that the reasoning was pretty thin. But the request was momentous. These things don't fit together. What gives?

Dennis O'Shea told me the original concern was that Matthew Green's post might be "illegally linking to classified information". I asked him what law he was referring to. "I'm not saying that there was a great deal of legal analysis done," he replied. Obviously. But again: given the severity of the remedy – unpublishing an expert's post critical of the NSA – careful legal analysis was called for. Why was it missing?

In commenting critically on a subject he is expert in, and taking an independent stance that asks hard questions and puts the responsibility where it belongs, Matthew Green is doing exactly what a university faculty member is supposed to be doing. By putting his thoughts in a blog post that anyone can read and link to, he is contributing to a vital public debate, which is exactly what universities need to be doing more often. Instead of trying to get Matthew Green's blog off their servers, the deans should be trying to get more faculty into blogging and into the public arena. Who at Johns Hopkins is speaking up for these priorities? And why isn't the Johns Hopkins faculty roaring about this issue? (I teach at New York University, and I'm furious.)

Notice: Matthew Green didn't get any takedown request from Google. Only from Johns Hopkins. Think about what that means for the school. He's "their" professor, yet his work is safer on the servers of a private company than his own university. The institution failed in the clutch. That it rectified it later in the day is welcome news, but I won't be cheering until we have answers that befit a great institution like Johns Hopkins, where graduate education was founded on these shores.

And another thing: America's  system of research universities is the best in the world. No one argues with that. It's one of biggest advantages this nation has. If it becomes captive to government and handmaiden to the surveillance state, that would be an economic and cultural crime of monstrous proportions. What happened to Matthew Green's blog post yesterday is no small matter.

Jay Rosen, associate professor of journalism at New York University, is a leading figure in the reform movement known as "public journalism," which calls on the press to take a more active role in strengthening citizenship and improving democracy. His book "What Are Journalists For?" addresses this topic. As a press critic and essayist, he has written about the media and political issues for the Columbia Journalism Review, The Nation, the New York Times, Salon, and Tikkun -- and almost daily at his weblog Press Think.
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