Obama won’t pledge firings over Web activist’s suicide

President Obama won't pledge to fire a pair of federal prosecutors over the 2013 suicide of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, the White House said in a response to 2-year-old petitions.

“Aaron Swartz's death was a tragic, unthinkable loss for his family and friends,” the White House said in the comment, posted late on Wednesday night.

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“[W]e will not address agency personnel matters in a petition response, because we do not believe this is the appropriate forum in which to do so,” it added.

The response was prompted by a pair of petitions urging Obama to fire Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Heymann and U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, two prosecutors who were involved in Swartz’s case.

Defenders of Swartz, who killed himself in January 2013, at the age of 26, say that overzealous prosecutors hounded him over charges that he stole more than 4 million academic articles from the JSTOR database and intended to give them away for free. For the crime, Swartz faced up to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

“A prosecutor who does not understand proportionality and who regularly uses the threat of unjust and overreaching charges to extort plea bargains from defendants regardless of their guilt is a danger to the life and liberty of anyone who might cross her path,” petitioners wrote in their demand that Obama fire Ortiz. 

Swartz’s death was a shock to Internet activists across the globe.

The talented programmer helped create an early version of the publishing tool RSS and co-founded a company that would eventually turn into Reddit. He also helped start Demand Progress, an online activist organization that has been a fiery defender of net neutrality and other issues.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have criticized the Justice Department’s aggressive pursuit of Swartz, but the two prosecutors currently appear to remain in their jobs. 

In 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder called the charges “a good use of prosecutorial discretion.”

In its reaction to the petitions, the White House said that it stood by the “spirit of openness” on the Internet that Swartz pursued.

“That's why members of the administration continue to engage with advocates to ensure the Internet remains a free and open platform as technology continues to disrupt industries and connect our communities in ways we can't yet imagine,” it said.

— Updated at 9:57 a.m. to correct the prosecutors' titles.