To supporters, Swartz was protagonist for a cause
"This crime had no victims. He wasn't ever intending to profit in ANY way, not one penny," said Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian who had communicated with Swartz online over the years. "It was really just a political act to protest a system in pursuit of a noble cause. ... I mean, the idea that he needs to be locked up in a prison as a menace to society is just obscene."
Greenwald called Swartz "heroic" and even compared him to King, the late civil rights leader.
"I think when you engage in civil disobedience, you make a calculation about the price that you're likely to have to pay," Greenwald, a former litigator, said in a telephone interview from his home in Brazil.
Some kind of punishment "is an important part of the social process," he acknowledged — but not as much as Swartz faced.
Journalist Juan Williams, the author of several books on the civil rights movement, said the comparison with King only goes so far.
"I think that Mr. Swartz IS a King-like figure for this generation in the sense that he was willing to challenge what he viewed as unjust laws," Williams said. "Where the analogy breaks down for me is that ... (Swartz) did not understand that in taking up this fight and bearing THIS cross, he was going to expose himself to tremendous political and emotional cost."
Swartz's family said he never thought of himself that way and may have cringed at such comparisons. His girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, would disagree with the characterization of what he was trying to do in the case of the online academic clearinghouse, known as JSTOR.
"I don't think that Aaron believed he committed any crime," she said. "I think Aaron would have under some circumstances engaged in civil disobedience, but this wasn't one of those cases."
Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, who had known and admired Swartz for more than a decade, agreed with Swartz's father.
"He was impatient to achieve something," said Lessig, faculty director of Harvard's Safra Center for Ethics, where Swartz was once a fellow.
Lessig said he was confident that Swartz was "surprised by the extremeness of their characterization of what happened" in the JSTOR case.
"So, unlike Martin Luther King, who might have been marching into Bull Connor's dogs, I don't think everything here was completely obvious," Lessig said. "But I'm sure he understood here that he was undertaking a significant risk."
Joel Tenenbaum, a former Boston University student who was sued by the Recording Industry Association of America and ordered to pay $675,0000 for illegally downloading and sharing songs on the Internet, says he empathized with Swartz.
"If you double-park your car, the worst you expect is to have your car towed and have to pay a couple of hundred dollars," he said. "You don't expect to lose your car over it. You don't expect to be put in prison for it."
Lessig said Swartz couldn't conceive of why the government would consider him enough of a threat to warrant special attention. And his failure to appreciate his symbolic value, Lessig said, "might have led him to be more reckless than he otherwise would have been."
"His naivete was a vice," Lessig said. "But it was a vice of the best possible kind."
"I think he would be completely astonished ... at the action that his death has provoked," Lessig said. "And I certainly think a deeper appreciation of the love of the Net for him would have made it harder for him to take the ultimate step that he did."
AP National Writer Allen G. Breed reported from Raleigh, N.C.
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