'Inadequate information' led a dean to take down a professor's post, an act that caused a row over academic freedoms

A Johns Hopkins University dean has apologised and insisted he is "supportive of academic freedom" after ordering a cryptography professor to take down a blog post which criticised the National Security Agency.

Matthew Green, an assistant research professor in JHU's department of computer science, was asked to remove a blog post from the university's servers on Monday. The entry linked to classified government documents published by the Guardian, the New York Times and ProPublica and summarised what Green called "bombshell revelations" of how the NSA is able to unlock encryption used to protect emails and other data.

JHU found itself criticised for abusing academic freedom after Andrew Douglas, who has served as interim dean of the university's engineering school since July, asked Green to remove the post from the university's servers.

The article, which featured screengrabs of NSA documents and the NSA's logo, had been posted to Green's personal blog but also appeared on a mirror blog on JHU's website.

"I am sorry that my request to you yesterday may have, in some minds, undeservedly undercut your reputation as a scholar and scientist. I am also sorry if I have raised in anyone's mind a question as to my commitment to academic freedom," Douglas wrote in a message to Green that was made public on Tuesday.

The demand to remove the NSA post caused an uproar after Green tweeted about it on Monday.

"I received a request from my Dean this morning asking me to remove all copies of my NSA blog post from University servers," he posted.

Green said the demand was "not my dean's fault" but said he had been told the request came from someone at JHU's Applied Physics Laboratory in a series of Twitter posts collated here:

"So listen, I'm trying not to talk about this much because anything I say will make it worse. What I've been told is that someone on the APL side of JHU discovered my blog post and determined that it was hosting/linking to classified documents. This requires a human since I don't believe there's any automated scanner for this process. It's not clear to me whether this request originated at APL or if it came from elsewhere.

All I know is that I received an email this morning from the interim dean of the engineering school asking me to take down the post and to desist from using the NSA logo. He also suggested I should seek counsel if I continued. In any case I made it clear that I would not shut down my non-JHU blog, but I did shut down a JHU-hosted mirror. I also removed the NSA logo. I did not remove any links or photos of NOW PUBLIC formerly classified material, because that would just be stupid.

I'm baffled by this entire thing. I hope to never receive an email like that again and I certainly believe JHU (APL) is on the wrong side of common sense and academic freedom, regardless of their obligations under the law. That said, I have no desire to cause trouble for any of the very good people at JHU so I'll keep my posts off JHU property. I have no idea if this was serious or a tempest in a teapot."

JHU was criticised for the request, with media critic Jay Rosen, among others, pointing out that the Applied Physics Laboratory has close ties to the NSA. A spokesman for JHU confirmed to ProPublica on Tuesday that it was someone at the APL who had drawn attention to the post.

"A message was sent from a staff member at APL to a staff member at the Homewood campus calling attention to the post," said spokesman Dennis O'Shea. "That message may have been understood as a request for action, though I am told it was intended only as an FYI. The Homewood staff member called the post to the attention of the dean. The dean wrote to Professor Green, and you know the rest."

In his letter to Green, Douglas said he had "acted too quickly, on the basis of inadequate and – as it turns out – incorrect information".

"I requested that you take down the post without adequately checking that information and without first providing you with an opportunity to correct it."

He added: "I hope that you understand that my motivation – again, based on inadequate information – was to protect the university and you from legal consequences."

© Guardian News and Media 2013

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