The State Should Not Pardon Aaron Swartz

There is a petition seeking the pardon of Aaron Swartz. It states, “President Obama has the power to issue a posthumous pardon of Mr. Swartz (even though he was never tried or convicted). Doing so will send a strong message about the improportionality with which he was prosecuted.” I understand the sentiment that underlies the petition. But I think it is wrong-headed and misplaced. It grants the state far too much.

It’s not simply a matter, as some have claimed to me on Twitter, that Swartz was never tried nor convicted of a crime; Ford, after all, pardoned Nixon before he was tried and convicted in the Senate. could be charged, tried or convicted in a court of law. The real issue is that in the court of public opinion, Swartz is the innocent—no, the hero—and the state is the criminal. It is the state, in other words, and not Swartz’s supporters, that should be seeking a pardon—from Swartz’s family, from his supporters, and from the public at large. Though, I hasten to add, it should never receive one.

Asking the state to pardon Swartz doubly empowers and exonerates the state. It cedes to the state the power to declare who is righteous and who is wrong (and thereby obscures the fact that it is the state that is the wrongful actor in this case). The petitioning language to Obama only adds to this. The statement depicts Obama as somehow the good father who stands above the fray—much like how the Tsar was depicted in the petition of the Russian workers who marched with Father Gapon on the Winter Palace in 1905 and were summarily slaughtered.

Pardoning Swartz also would allow the government, effectively, to pardon itself. As my friend Michael Pollak pointed out to me, “Under our laws, Swartz was still innocent. Therein lies the crime of what the state did to him. This would remove it.” I would merely add that even if Swartz would have been (or had been) found guilty under the law, Michael’s stricture would still hold.

I want the death of Swartz, and the prosecution that helped produce it, to hang around the neck of the state for a very long time. If the state wishes to remove it, let it start by curbing its prosecutorial zeal, of which Swartz was sadly only one victim.


  1. Ford Prefect January 15, 2013 at 12:44 pm | #

    It makes perfect sense that Obama loyalists would float this idea, for precisely the reasons you list. It gives all the responsible parties an out, while still managing to posthumously incriminate Swartz with a meaningless pardon that people will remember more than the prosecutorial misconduct that contributed to his untimely death. The “beauty” of this is that Swartz still loses in all this–forever branded a criminal in need of a pardon–while simultaneously absolving the administration of any responsibility for its horrid behaviors.

    It’s a bit like Obama’s “ban” on torture. It’s not that he had the authority to ban or enable it–he doesn’t, because it’s been illegal all along–but it does give him an out for not dealing with the problem by substituting a wholly inappropriate fake “solution.”

    You’ve got to hand it to them. They sure know how to avoid squishy moral questions by efficiently changing the subject and the terms of debate.

  2. Arthur S Reber January 15, 2013 at 1:03 pm | #

    I agree with your take here, Cory. It’s an interesting switch. But there’s another element in the Swartz matter that I haven’t seen yet in the blogosphere.

    In general, openness trumps secrecy but in some domains it gets tricky. Some data bases (JSTOR, one of Swarz’s main targets, for example) are expensive to collect. It takes a lot of time and effort to mine the literature and pull together items in ways that a researcher can use. In these cases (and there are many, in fact most academic disciplines have one or more), a fee is charged to individual users and libraries. Most of these (virtually all in academia) are non-profit. If these are routinely hacked and made available for free the revenue stream of the organization that pulled the data together is lost. Ultimately the act of piracy undermines the idealized aim of making available all relevant information. It is, in a way, similar to copyright violations. The author has had someone strip away the return on his/her efforts.

    There is a simple solution here and it’s obvious: Additional support to scholars and researchers and, yes, even good old fashioned data crunchers, to increase the ways in which information can be accumulated, processed and distributed. But until this happens (don’t hold your breath, it’s gonna be a while….), we should not necessarily be praising all hacktivists.

    And, just so none of your readers jump all over me, I’m a fan of Assange and think that Wikileaks, so long as it focuses on corrupt governments and documents designed to hide malfeasance, is a damn good thing.

    Arthur (S. Reber)
    Broeklundian Prof of Psych, Emeritus
    [Yeah, used to be just one floor up from you in James …. ]

  3. Joanna Bujes January 15, 2013 at 1:09 pm | #

    By the way Corey, Aaron was a great fan of yours. I was reading through his blog and found an item praising your book and quoting one of my favorite passages (beauty/subline).

  4. ezra abrams January 29, 2013 at 10:20 pm | #

    lemme see….
    It is difficult to put a value on the JSTOR database, or the right to download pdfs of articles via JTOR, but it looks like the cash flow was well north of $1,000,000.00 a year

    on what planet is 6months a harsh punishment for what is, leaving aside technical caveats, stealing a million bucks ?

    and why are all of swartzs defenders equating 6 months with a life sentance ?
    months in solitary – a la manning – thats harsh; wearing a suicide necklace, a la kiddna victims in mali, thats harsh

    6 months in one of those min security country club fed prisions, that isnt harsh espicially when all your rich and powerful friends gonna thro you a huge party, you get outta the joint, all the girls gonna be fawning over you….

    you can see the stupidity of Swartz’s defenders in their arguments; one well known media person wrote to me (private email) that Swartz act wasn’t theft cause jstor was non profit….

    but of course, you , corey robin, you have no problem someone breaks the door to your office, hacks into your computer and “liberates” your personal notes, right ????

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