This is Larry Lessig, speaking at Harvard Law School as he accepts the Chair as Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership. As Dean Martha Minnow says at the end of Larry’s speech, this is a Chair in Law AND LEADERSHIP, and she can think of no better person to be sitting in it. If you take the time to watch this speech, and you should, then I’m sure you will have no doubt that Martha’s words are true.
I knew nothing of Aaron Swartz until after his death. I wish I’d known of him before. He took his life on January 11th, at the age of 26, after being indicted for 13 counts by the United States Government after writing a script to download files from Jstor and store them on his computer hard drive after accessing an open cupboard serving as a server room at MIT and hardwiring his computer to it. He presumably had the intent of making them accessible to all, instead of being trapped behind a paywall system. A paywall system that means for the bulk of the population, these academic articles, funded by taxpayer money, are inaccessible to most of us, and accessible only to those who frequent institutions who pay the licensing fees guaranteeing you access. A recent article in the New Republic, provides speculation as to why Aaron may have decided to take this course.
In the last 20 minutes of this speech, Larry questions the state of things in the United States and asks “Is the United States America anymore?” An America where people who think differently, as Aaron did, are challenged by the Government instead of being supported for their divergent thinking. Divergent thinking that might actually make our world a better place for those who are not the monied elite and don’t have the financial means to advance themselves. My empathy qoutient is raised in this regard; I benefited from a free Higher Education model the Australian Government used to endorse and I’m convinced it provided me with a pathway to further education that may not have been realised without it.
Larry Lessig is obviously deeply impacted by Aaron’s death. There are moments in this speech where I wondered how he could continue, but continue he did, and his words are a more than fitting tribute to a young man who had ideals way beyond those who write code to power networks that provide people with opportunities for connection, but make them millions of dollars in the process. I saw Tim Berners Lee speak in Melbourne earlier this month and a large portion of his speech was dedicated to Aaron. Like Larry, he had known Aaron since his teenage years and like Larry, it was apparent that his untimely death had deeply affected him.
You may not be able to find a way to share the full contents of this speech with the students you teach, but if a moment presents itself, try and find a way to share Aaron’s story, and use the last 20 minutes of the speech with them. What Larry is positing it that we need more people like Aaron, and more people (and lawyers) willing to step up and do what is right. Larry shares with the audience that he was often seen as Aaron’s mentor, but in fact he saw himself as Aaron’s mentee. Aaron once questioned him on one of their many subjects of interest and Larry’s reply was met with, “yes, as an academic, but what as a citizen?” It’s a question that Larry says will help him to continue to fight what seem impossible fights. Fights like ‘dumb copyright’ that deny people the right to the benefits of academic research funded by taxpayer dollars.
It’s the moral compasses we set for ourselves that make our world a better place to live in. Aaron’s death will hopefully leave a legacy where those who think different, those who think for the good of the whole, will become champions and not pilloried for their actions. I have in no way here paid justice to the story of Aaron Swartz. If you know nothing of this remarkable young man, then do what you can to find out more. A recent piece of longform writing in Slate is a good place to start.
Aaron’s is a story that needs telling. And remembering.