"Cradle of Liberty" Gets Its Cradle Handed To It

Boston, Massachusetts has a rich history of fighting for freedom from government oppression. It was Boston Harbor that colonists dumped tea into to protest oppressive taxation. It was on King Street that Crispus Attucks became the first casualty of the American Revolution — and Boston where John Adams put his duty to the law before his political leanings to ensure the British soldiers responsible would be represented by counsel. And it was from Boston that Paul Revere began his midnight ride, warning that the British were headed towards Lexington — not twenty miles away — where the "shot heard 'round the world" would ring out. Perhaps that's why it is so particularly appalling to see it trample on the rights of its citizens — and so blissfully sweet to see their fragile attempt at totalitarianism itself be trampled in turn.

As the world now knows, two weekends ago three students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — often regarded one of the best centers for post-secondary education in technology — were restrained by a federal judge from giving a presentation at DefCon 2008 regarding security vulnerabilities in Boston's Charlie ticketing systems after the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority ran screaming to court at the eleventh hour. The students, who received a much-coveted 'A' from their professor — world-famous security expert Ron Rivest — were scheduled to discuss the flaws they found during the conference, but were prevented by the federal court's injunction on the grounds that discussing the flaws would amount to dissemination of hacking tools, an activity prohibited by the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The students, represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other civil liberties organizations, fought to overturn the temporary order, but were ignored by not one but two federal judges, despite being an open-and-shut case of prior restraint.

Nearly every free speech and civil liberties group with access to the internet or a microphone denounced the decision, though that seemed to have little effect on the MBTA's moronic mindset about the students and their research. It did, apparently, have an effect on the latter of the two judges who were so willing to trample across the Constitution they swore to defend, as on Tuesday morning, Judge George O'Toole vacated the original order entered by Judge Woodlock — an action he had previously refused to take — and denied the MBTA's request for a five month injunction against the students.

Having been presented with his posterior, MBTA General Manager Daniel Grabauskas finally admitted that the students had indeed found a way to obtain free rides from the Charlie system — though an MBTA spokesman was quick to announce "It was not a flaw with the ticket or the system" — and "reiterated" his "invitation" for the students to discuss their research — something the three did nearly a week before the MBTA filed suit. After all they've done to him, Zack Anderson — the only one of the students to speak to the press — is still willing to work with them.

Of course, vacating the injunction doesn't take away the lawsuit, though Judge O'Toole's finding that the CFAA doesn't apply and that the MBTA's other claims lacked legal merit may just take the wind out of their sails. The reality, though, is just what we predicted a week ago: the students have prevailed over the injunction, but lost what was probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the MBTA still has a vulnerable ticket system and is still trying to hide the problems, and Judge Woodlock — who obviously has difficulty reliably locating the First Amendment — is still on the bench, ready and waiting for another opportunity to relieve the innocent of their rights.

If you ask us — and we're going to pretend you did — the real resolution of this case ought to be that the MBTA drops its frivolous lawsuit and owns up to its shortcomings, formally apologizes — we're thinking live on national TV — to the students, and pays back the legal fees incurred by a number of charitable groups to defend the three. Of course, it'll never happen voluntarily, but here's hoping it's part of the judgment that eventually reintroduces — once again — the "cradle of liberty" to its cradle.

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