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04-16-03, 02:46 PM
Midshipmen Disciplined Over Downloads
Naval Academy Chooses Not to Impose Maximum Sanctions Against 85 Students

By Nelson Hernandez and Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 16, 2003; Page B03

The U.S. Naval Academy has punished 85 midshipmen caught downloading copyrighted files onto their computers in November but did not impose the maximum penalties of court-martial or expulsion, according to an academy document.

The document, first obtained by the Baltimore Sun, shows that academy officials disciplined most of the 92 midshipmen whose computers were seized in a Nov. 21 raid, which attracted nationwide attention as the first example of a college cracking down on unauthorized network use.

An investigation after the raid found that the future Navy and Marine Corps officers were using the school's state-of-the-art T3 Internet connection to download vast quantities of copyrighted movies, music and computer games. They stored the material on large-capacity hard drives hooked to their government-issue computers, which had been turned into miniature Web sites that attracted traffic from all over the country.

One midshipman, who had several friends involved in the case, said that the students were gathered together and disciplined en masse two months ago. According to the midshipman, who would not give his name for fear of retribution, the offenders were given between 30 and 60 days of "restriction" and up to 75 demerits. Midshipmen with more than 400 demerits cannot graduate.

A midshipman on restriction is forbidden to leave campus for anything other than sports competitions and is required to report to superiors five times a day -- beginning at 6:30 a.m. and ending at 10:30 p.m. -- in an inspection-quality uniform. If the midshipman skips the report or the uniform does not pass muster, the period of restriction is extended.

"Your life is just hell if you get restriction," said the midshipman. "Sixty days is one of the heftiest ones they can hand out and still keep you here."

Still, the matter was treated as a "conduct offense," less serious than an "honor offense," which would have resulted in expulsion or permanent damage to the future careers of the midshipmen.

Conduct offenses are any of the hundreds of things that can get a student into hot water, such as failure to shine one's shoes, sneaking off campus or drinking while underage. Honor offenses -- lying, cheating or stealing -- are often grounds for expulsion or a court-martial.

Cmdr. Bill Spann, academy spokesman, would not comment on specific punishments but called them appropriate. "This amounted to the next generation of the nation's combat leaders being held accountable for their actions," Spann said.

The midshipman also speculated that the academy picked a few students to make an example of. Before the incident, he said, a vast number of students used the campus's fast connection to snag music, movies and computer games. "I'd say easily half this place was downloading [stuff]," he said. "I'll tell you, I was."

Now, though, he and his classmates have been scared straight, he said.

"We've been successful in getting the message across," Spann said.

Some experts said the Naval Academy case underscores a general reluctance among higher education officials to harshly discipline students for file-sharing offenses.

The concerns are both philosophical and logistical. "If a campus was to adjudicate every case of peer-to-peer file sharing, the caseload would be staggering," said Kevin Kruger, associate executive director of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.

Rodney Petersen, director of information technology policy and planning at the University of Maryland, argued that punishing students is not a core part of a university's mission. "Our purpose is to educate and change their behavior," he said. "That would suggest that more informal approaches are more appropriate."

Maryland has issued numerous warnings to students found using the university's server to download movies or music. However, only serious repeat offenders are referred to the university's judicial system, Petersen said.

The most serious punishments among those students was a warning or probation.

Many colleges, in fact, have moved from threatening students with disciplinary action to simply pleading with them to desist, telling them that by downloading large files they are draining bandwidth from their own server and slowing down their own Internet access. "Students are not moved by the legal argument," Kruger said.

2003 The Washington Post Company