Star A. Simpson ’10 made an honest mistake when she wore a glowing circuit board to Logan International Airport. State police responded reasonably to a perceived threat, and they quickly determined that Simpson’s attire posed no threat at all. She was cooperative, and they were professional.
It should have ended there.
But then a police representative told an eager crowd of reporters that “thankfully,” Simpson had cooperated and “ended up in a cell as opposed to the morgue.” The Suffolk County district attorney pressed charges of possessing a hoax device. National news reports displayed a recklessly sensationalistic disregard for the truth by using phrases like “fake bomb strapped to her chest.” MIT — which should be acting to help its student — was curiously quiet, releasing only a statement that “[a]s reported to us by the authorities, Simpson’s actions were reckless and understandably created alarm at the airport.”
Instead, the Institute should make the facts of the case clear — that Simpson and the device were harmless — and the district attorney’s office should drop the charges against Simpson.
Simpson made a mistake when she picked her airport attire, a sweatshirt with a breadboard on the front. Attached to the breadboard were a few green light-emitting diodes in the shape of a star, plus a battery to power them. Because her name is Star, this outfit made a unique and memorable name tag for Thursday’s Career Fair. But most people at Logan Airport have not taken 6.002 (Circuits and Electronics), and Simpson’s device made them uncomfortable. It is not clear whether she realized they thought her shirt was a bomb, but it is certainly clear that she did not intend to scare anyone.
Simpson faces a five-year prison sentence if prosecutors prove that Simpson’s sweatshirt made people reasonably believe it was a bomb, and if they also prove that she wore it in order to scare people. Assistant District Attorney Wayne Margolis should realize that the latter half of this charge — intent — is clearly missing and should drop the case.
Whether or not the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office chooses to continue its case against Simpson, the Institute should support her. MIT administrators are in a unique position of authority to tell the police and district attorney, the press, and the general public that the device posed no possible danger, and that, for people here, carrying breadboards, LEDs, wire, and batteries is hardly unusual. By remaining silent and unsupportive, MIT risks losing the good will (and the dollars) of its technically inclined alumni and future alumni. Worse, if MIT gains a reputation for prioritizing its image over its students’ well-being, talented prospective students will be turned off by the Institute.
Tech Talk, MIT’s press publication, regularly features students’ electronic inventions but hardly ever mentions the negative consequences of those inventions. MIT should exercise a mature approach to public relations by accepting its whole image: when students’ innocuous innovations get them in trouble, MIT must help defuse the conflict.
Angeline Wang has recused herself from this editorial.