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The Professor and the Porn

For 26 years, Edward Samuels was a highly respected New York Law School professor. And then the tech department stumbled onto his stash of child pornography. But if you thought he’d resign, you’d be wrong. Instead, he sat back while his colleagues argued the merits of his case. Then, curiously, the techies who discovered his secret were fired.

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On the evening of August 15, 2002, just days before new students were due to arrive for the fall semester, an e-mail titled “Distressing News” went out to the community of New York Law School, in lower Manhattan. Because of the alarming heading, many professors clicked the e-mail open thinking it might announce the death of one of the faculty.

“I’m saddened to report to you that I learned this afternoon that our colleague, Professor Edward Samuels, was arrested on charges relating to possession of child pornographic images,” the dean of the school, Richard Matasar, had written. “The Law School has placed Professor Samuels on paid administrative leave so that he may attend to his defense . . . Our hearts go out to Ed and his family as they face the difficult time ahead.”

Several faculty members promptly called each other to report that a hoax had been perpetrated, and at least one called the dean to warn him that a hacker had infiltrated the system. The following morning, however, the story was splashed across the pages of several newspapers, including the New York Post, which proffered the irresistible tabloid headline: PROF PORN STUNNER—STAFF FINDS XXX KID PIX ON HIS OFFICE COMPUTER.

Indeed, computer technicians at the school had happened upon pornographic pictures of young girls while trying to fix Samuels’s computer, the papers reported, and a police search of his apartment on the Upper West Side had yielded 159 disks of illegal images. Later reports would detail the gruesome and disturbingly cruel nature of some of the photographs—young girls being raped by adults or dogs; babies being sexually assaulted; young children bound and whipped. Samuels had more than 100,000 pictures, the largest stash ever seen by the Manhattan D.A.’s office.

Colleagues were staggered. The balding, diminutive Samuels had been, for 26 years, a highly respected member of the faculty and a dedicated copyright scholar and professor. He was described as quiet and thoughtful by peers and was popular with students. As one longtime faculty member put it, “You always hear ‘the last person in the world,’ and I’m not saying I can think of someone else who would have done this, but this totally blew you away.”

By the following Monday, when staff and faculty were back at school, no one could talk of anything else. “We were all looking at each other and going, ‘Can you believe it?’ ” one professor said. Staff members who were friendly with the technicians who’d discovered the porn confirmed the information for incredulous professors.

“It made me sick,” recalled Joan Argento, who had been Samuels’s assistant for five years. “There were times when I had my daughter at work and he said, ‘Hi, honey, how are you?’ It just made me sick.”

But if staff members were appalled, for Samuels’s faculty colleagues and friends the discovery posed a much more complex dilemma. Even after he pleaded guilty to possessing 100 images, many of them remained torn. And when the two computer technicians who had discovered the pictures were later fired, there was a conspicuous lack of interest in rallying to their defense.

New York Law School is not the only academic institution that has recently been linked to child pornography. In the past few years, professors at Yale and Penn have been enmeshed in similar scandals. Antonio Lasaga, a Yale professor and housemaster, was charged with possession of 150,000 images of child porn, including two videotapes of him raping an 11-year-old boy. He received fifteen years for possession and twenty for rape—sentences he is currently appealing. Paul Mosher, the head of libraries at Penn and a vice-provost, resigned in April when he was caught downloading thousands of images and paying for them with his credit card. The crimes, well covered by the media, seemed all the more shocking for involving figures of authority entrusted with the welfare of young people.

While New York Law School is hardly an Ivy—professors there describe it as a middle-of-the-pack law school—to the community, the case was deeply unsettling. But not entirely in the ways outsiders might imagine. Of course, there was the fact that the 54-year-old Samuels had clearly been assembling his vast trove of images for years, while professionally he remained beyond reproach. It occurred to many of his colleagues that he had deliberately invited technicians to examine a computer on which he must have known they might find incriminating evidence—causing some to wonder if he had wanted to get caught. And then, to quote a 2003 graduate of the school, there was the ultimate truism that, after all, “you expect a law professor to be a law-abiding citizen.”

Unlike Lasaga and Mosher, Samuels did not resign immediately. Protected by tenure, he stayed on paid administrative leave for months, deepening the fault lines that began to appear within the school community. To the staff, from clerical workers to security guards, it was obvious that Samuels should give up his post. The faculty and senior administration, however, were much more conflicted. To expect that they would shun an alleged child-pornography addict would be to underestimate the propensity to agonize in academia. Especially legal academia. And especially when you factor in the deep ambivalence among legal scholars about pornography. Some criticized the staff for rushing to judgment before the investigation was over. Others criticized the dean for turning the images over to the D.A. without warning Samuels.

“The school had a duty, which they failed to do, to talk to Ed and say what’s your explanation for this,” says Randolph Jonakait, a fellow professor. “The notion of going to the police and not talking to Ed seems to me incorrect; it was wrong from a workplace point of view and wrong from an academic-freedom point of view. Anyone who’s concerned with issues of academic freedom should be concerned about this.”

And several challenged the validity of the law Samuels was accused of breaking. “This is close to a victimless crime,” says Jonakait, who later solicited letters on Samuels’s behalf for the judge who’ll be sentencing him June 23. “There is no allegation or proof that Samuels did anything other than view this stuff. You take him out of the market, and you’re not even removing someone who has put money into the pornographic commerce.”

Even the dean who made the decision to alert the district attorney in the first place, Matasar, admits wrestling with the subject. “When there’s no purchase or sale of these materials, I don’t know,” he says. “As a lawyer, I am ambivalent on these issues.”

It was more than a matter of colleagues circling the wagons. If the staff responded viscerally to the content of the material at issue, some professors reacted almost as viscerally to the constitutional issues it provoked—the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee of privacy rights.

“I’m in disagreement with some colleagues who are my best friends,” said one professor who supports the child-porn laws. “They are utterly hostile to the idea of a law regulating something done in the privacy of your own home that’s not harmful to others. But I think that society can make laws to protect children from any risk, even if it’s not a direct risk. Our views differ rather dramatically.”


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