Petition to fire Aaron Swartz prosecutor hits 25,000 signatures

The White House must now respond to a petition to fire U.S. Attorney Steve Heymann, the prosecutor in Aaron's Swartz's hacking case.


Kevin Collier

Internet Culture

Published Feb 12, 2013   Updated Jun 2, 2021, 1:11 am CDT

Even if Aaron Swartz doesn’t get legal reform in his name, at least the White House will be forced to address the prosecutors who allegedly drove him to suicide.

A petition titled “Fire U.S. Attorney Steve Heymann,” went live on the Obama’s administration’s “We The People” website, Jan. 12, the day after Swartz, 26, hanged himself. That means it barely slipped in before the White House’s declaration on Jan. 15 that petitions would require 100,000, rather than 25,000, signatures to guarantee an official response.

A good thing, too: When it closed on Monday, it had just crested 25,825 names.

“Steve Heymann’s overzealous prosecution of an allegedly minor and non-violent electronic crime led to the suicide of Aaron Swartz,” the petition reads, in part. “Such actions should be treated as forms of protest and civil disobedience. To prosecute these actions the same as rapes and murders is a savage abuse of the criminal justice system.”

Outrage over what drove Swartz to hang himself in his apartment is largely focused on two targets. The first is his prosecution, including Heymann, whose zealous prosecution is believed to have previously driven a different young alleged hacker to suicide. The other is the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), a section of which criminalizes the act of intentionally breaking a site’s terms of service, which Swartz was accused of violating when he leaked 4 million academic papers from MIT. Immediately before Swartz’s death, his plea bargain fell through, and he faced 30 years in prison.

Activists have clamored to comprehensively reform the CFAA in the wake of Swartz’s death. Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) has twice brought a proposed “Aaron’s Law” to Reddit to crowdsource a revision. Though the House Judiciary Committee promised to consider it, Lofgren is reportedly finding it difficult to shore up much interest in the House.

White House petitions condemning Swartz’s opponents have had more success. One against U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, Heyman’s supervisor, reached the requisite 25,000 signatures in three days, though the White House has yet to issue its response.

There’s a good chance that response, when it does come, will be about both Heymann and Ortiz; the White House petition process tends to conflate similar petitions.

Photo by dsearls/Flickr

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*First Published: Feb 12, 2013, 4:59 pm CST