Getting your facts straight: the UMass Patriot Act hoax

There’s a fascinating story to unravel related to the made-up account of
a UMass student who claimed to have gotten a visit from the Department
of Homeland Security as a result of having borrowed Mao’s Little Red
Book via interlibrary loan.  After a fair amount of ink on the
matter, the student admitted recently that it was a hoax.  There
are no doubt some enduring lessons to be learned for many people
involved.  The record ought to be set straight.  Hopefully,
this false narrative did not lead anyone to make a decision they
otherwise would not have made.

So, fair enough: it’s embarrassing for anyone who used what turned out
to be a phony example as an instance of the over-reach of US law
enforcement via the Patriot Act.  Those of us who think there
ought to be a carefully struck balance between civil liberties and the
empowerment of law enforcement officials to learn things about us ought
to be accountable when we make mistakes.  It’s imperative, where
life and death is literally at stake every day, that we only make
decisions based on facts.

But for those who would gloat in the aftermath of this unfortunate
event, I’d urge just the same accountability and restraint. 
There’s a rant at on this topic in which I am implicated. 

Part of what’s said in this rant is true: in an article
in the Harvard Crimson, I said I was skeptical that the DHS would visit
a student just based on the interlibrary loan information alone, and
that, if the student had indeed received such a visit, that there must
have been other factors involved. 

The author of the blog-post
cites my and another person’s skepticism of the original reports, but
in response goes from there to say:

“Anything jump out at you there?  How about two Harvard law and
history professors 1) think this was ‘extremely unlikely’ and 2) have
never heard of any related incidents?  Now of course Professors
Palfrey and Gordon have no doubts, either, about the story; Palfrey
assumes there was some other reason for surveillance…”

It’s pretty remarkable that someone would write a long post about how
civil libertarians jump to conclusions based on partial evidence, and
the goes on to jump to the conclusion that I and someone else have “no
doubts … about the story.”  After stating on the record that it
was “extremely unlikely” that DHS would have done such a thing, I’d
think that my “doubts” about the story were perfectly clear.  As
one might imagine, the reporter went on to ask, “How do you think such
a thing could have happened?”  I stated that, if such a visit had
taken place (I had no knowledge one way or the other on this matter),
the officials must have had other information that would lead them to
undertake such an investigation.

There’s no room in the debate over the extension of the Patriot Act
provisions, and the crucially important balance between privacy and
investigative powers, for hyperbole.  The only way to come to a
reasoned decision is to look closely at hard facts.  When someone
gets the facts wrong, we should correct the record and reconsider
whether we made the wrong decision based on the facts.  But those
who swing the pendulum back so far as to distort the narrative in yet
another direction are just fanning the flames and doing us all a

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