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News Opinion Editorial

A chilling effect

Johns Hopkins University says a request earlier this week for a professor to remove from its website a blog post that criticized the National Security Agency — a move that outraged many faculty members — resulted from a simple misunderstanding on the part of an interim dean who was only trying to protect the school from possible legal jeopardy. To its credit, the university quickly recognized the problem and corrected it by restoring the post online. But the fact that such a lapse occurred at all suggests Hopkins may need to take a deeper look at how such judgment calls are made and the chilling effect they can have on the principle of academic freedom that allows scholars to vigorously debate the great public issues of the day.

Matthew D. Green, the computer science professor who posted the blog, is an expert in cryptography, the science of creating and breaking coded messages. He is also widely known as one of the few scientists who can speak clearly in layman's terms about details of the U.S. government's most controversial secret surveillance programs and their implications for Americans' privacy rights.

Mr. Green recently wrote a blog based on a news report that the NSA had circumvented the codes that protect the personal information of millions of Americans on the Internet. In the blog, he went on to say that he interpreted the news reports to mean that the scale of government snooping on citizens' private lives had already exceeded even his own worst fears. Mr. Green was able to discuss details of the matter because he is not bound by a government security clearance or research contract that would keep him from speaking freely.

But on Monday Mr. Green received an email from Andrew Douglas, the interim dean of Hopkins' school of engineering, asking him to remove his post from the university's website because it possibly contained classified information. Distributing such material is illegal and could subject the university to prosecution by the Justice Department. Moreover, Mr. Green said the dean told him that if he didn't take down the blog, he should "get a lawyer." He said he was shocked by the school's reaction, as were many of his colleagues who joined him in protesting the dean's directive.

A Hopkins spokesman said dean had acted on the basis of information he received from an employee at the school's Applied Physics Lab, which has contracts to work on NSA projects and many workers who, unlike Mr. Green, are bound by government security restrictions. The spokesman said the APL employee intended only to give the dean a heads-up about the site's existence but that Mr. Douglas misinterpreted what was said to mean that the blog also included links to sites containing material whose release could lead to criminal charges being brought against the university.

Soon after faculty members protested the dean's order it became clear that nothing Mr. Green had written put either the school or himself in legal danger. At that point, the dean rescinded his order to remove the blog from the university's website and sent its author a letter apologizing for the mix-up. Officially, the school has taken the position that the whole episode was an unfortunate incident that ought never be repeated but which, fortunately, was discovered quickly and set to right.

We certainly hope there's nothing more to it than that, but we believe that Hopkins officials outside of the engineering school need to delve a bit more deeply than it appears to have done into the policies and decision-making process that allowed such a snafu to happen in the first place. Hopkins, through APL, has deep connections with the NSA. Does the dean's evident unquestioning deference to word from an employee of that lab suggest an institutional reluctance to do anything that might upset the giant and secretive government agency? The tone and tenor of the email he sent to Mr. Green certainly suggests that might be a possibility. At the very least, it creates the appearance of a university whose knee-jerk reaction is not to defend academic freedom.

As things now stand, officials seem very eager to put the whole incident behind them without a lot of reflection about how to avoid future embarrassments such as this. Yet that's exactly what we fear will occur unless they are willing to take a second look and really get to the bottom of what went wrong in this case.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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