The Professor and the Porn

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.”

As one professor put it, what the New York Law School response demonstrated was “just how abstracted faculty can be from the real world.”

Often overlooked in the ongoing debate about possession of pornography—one of the more inflammatory contemporary legal issues—are the crucial differences between adult and child pornography. Possession of child porn is both a federal and, in New York, a state crime. The images lack First Amendment protection because their creation requires a criminal act, the abuse of a child.

“Possession is where you see very clearly the difference between obscenity laws and child-pornography laws,” explains Amy Adler, a professor at NYU School of Law and a specialist on child-porn laws. “In obscenity laws, the rationale for banning possession of images is thought control, and that’s a First Amendment violation. In child-pornography law, the thinking is that it has nothing to do with First Amendment thought control and everything to do with the fact that child pornography is created through violating a child. We have to ban the pictures themselves because they result from a crime. Someone, somewhere has to have committed a crime.”

The first thing the FBI’s Crimes Against Children Unit will tell you is that child porn is not Lolita. Or Sally Mann. “It’s not just little children playing naked or little girls in their underwear,” says Belisa Vranich, a clinical psychologist who has worked with FBI child-porn experts. “A lot of it is extremely violent, and the images show children obviously in a terrific amount of pain. Because it involves children, the sexual acts recorded are always rape. Some of the victims appear to be unconscious; a lot of them are drugged and bound. It’s not so much sexual as it is extremely violent.”

The FBI’s Austin Berglas adds: “People think this is American Beauty–type stuff. It’s not. It’s violent crime.”

Child porn, unlike adult porn, is rarely for sale on the Internet. In its 1984 Child Protection Act, Congress recognized that since much of the material isn’t produced for commercial purposes, its distribution and production should be illegal regardless of no intent to sell. Nowadays, putting up your credit-card information on the Internet for child porn would be the equivalent—as the Who’s Pete Townshend learned in January and Penn’s Paul Mosher realized in April—of holding out your hands to be cuffed. But to law enforcement, the fact that these images are disseminated for free, by the disturbed cottage industry of fathers, stepfathers, uncles, and boyfriends who produce most of them in their bedrooms, living rooms, or garages, is no excuse to leave them up. According to Vranich, the sheer volume of porn out there creates online communities where “you think what you’re doing is completely normal.”

Law enforcement targets the end user—even though no money is changing hands—in order to discourage production of the images.

“The idea is that this is an underground industry and we have to go after the end users because it’s so difficult to find the original perpetrators,” explains Adler. “If we punish enough end users, and enough people are scared to go to jail, the argument is, no one will create the images.”

Law enforcement’s commitment is a response to the increased accessibility of child porn on the Internet. And, experts say, the sheer quantity of child porn available on the Internet has raised viewers’ thresholds. Marianna Novielli, a Secret Service agent with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, explains that cases involving infants have become more and more frequent in the past six years. “The belief is that it’s just not exciting enough to have a child victim; it’s even more stimulating to have a younger victim, an infant, even more taboo.”

According to Berglas, most active viewers of child porn hoard and trade images like baseball cards. With his 100,000 images, Samuels was certainly an obsessive, but he’s by no means alone. “A lot of the computers we find and seize have pictures catalogued under headings like ‘Girls 12 and Under’ or ‘Under 10 Boys,’ ” Berglas says. “Often the series are labeled by name and collectors can ask each other, ‘Hey, does anybody have the Linda series? Does anybody have the Peg series?’”

On the afternoon of Sunday, June 2, 2002, Dorothea Perry arrived at New York Law School without the slightest inkling that she was about to trigger a chain of events that would lead to Samuels’s arrest and, she contends, her own eventual firing. A 36-year-old computer technician who worked on the school’s IT help desk, Perry had received a message the previous Friday that Samuels thought his computer had a virus. Around 2:30 p.m., she entered the professor’s neat, orderly office on Worth Street, with its odd screen of stacked Coca-Cola cans Samuels had erected against his window—which she later concluded had been put up to prevent people across the street from seeing in—and sat down to reinstall an antivirus program. She restarted the computer, but the machine kept dumping memory and giving her what she called “the blue screen of death.” After about two hours, she left a note saying she had worked on the machine unsuccessfully, and that someone would come in to make another attempt the following morning. Then she left a message on the voice-mail of her colleague Rob Gross, asking him to see if he could solve the problem.

The following day, Gross tried and failed. Following the guidelines of their company, Collegis, a subcontractor to the law school for all IT-related matters, Perry and Gross decided to give the professor a new machine while they worked on his. This meant they had to back up his files on the school’s network in order to later transfer them to the new machine, something Gross had done hundreds of times in similar cases. Noticing a folder labeled “My Music,” Rob thought, This is something he might want. He clicked on an imbedded folder labeled “Nime2” and photographs popped up on the screen. There were two dozen of them, and they showed girls, maybe 8 or 9 years old, who seemed to be “trying to look sexy.” Not, Rob thought, your average family photographs.

“Oh, my God, Dorothea,” he called across the office. “Come take a look at this.”

Perry walked over to his cubicle and peered over his shoulder. She noticed the girls had no pubic hair. They were flat-chested. She had never seen images of child porn, but as a single mother with an 8-year-old boy, who had also helped raise her younger sisters, she felt certain that these were pornographic images of children. She reported them to Collegis’s executive director, Margaret Perley, who agreed to alert the associate dean for finance and administration, Fred DeJohn, her liaison at the school.

The following day, June 4, was Richard Matasar’s birthday. He went out for drinks and snacks with members of his staff—his assistant Harry Althaus, DeJohn, and associate dean Joan Fishman. DeJohn took the opportunity to broach the subject of what they had found. “Let’s talk about it tomorrow,” Matasar told him, realizing the situation could be sensitive. “But don’t tell me who it is yet.” On June 5, Matasar and DeJohn sat down together to discuss the issues. Were the pictures on the computer of a professor who did research in the area? Matasar wanted to know. Was there a possible explanation? Alas, there was not, and later that day, Matasar and DeJohn took a look at three of the images. One of them could have been a family photograph taken on a beach, Matasar said. But the other two he described as being “on the other side of that line … whatever that line is.”

As Perry would later explain, the images were very sexually provocative. We have a real problem here, thought Matasar.

After stories detailing the violent content of some of the photos appeared in the tabloids, Samuels phoned several of his colleagues to assure them that the rape images the authorities had found at his home were not the images he intended to amass; he was only interested in the ones of naked children. As Jonakait speculated, it’s possible he inadvertently received harder-core porn than he wanted while downloading a whole magazine about children. Law-enforcement sources confirm the nature and amount of the images they saw, but some colleagues remained doubtful. “I was skeptical about the accuracy of press reports, and I continue to be somewhat skeptical about what the D.A. said,” Matasar says. “Professor Samuels said, ‘Regardless of what you heard, don’t believe what you read, that wasn’t what I collected or what I was interested in.’ He wanted me to know and wanted people in our community to know that the worst of what was reported was not what he was doing.

“He wasn’t trying to say ‘I’m a good guy,’ ” adds Matasar. “He was trying to say ‘I’m not that guy.’”

Exactly which guy Samuels is became a puzzling issue. One of the school’s longest-serving professors, he had grown up in Paragould, Arkansas, and come east to Yale and then Columbia before arriving at New York Law School, his first and only academic posting. “He always rolled up his sleeves to chair committees,” said James Simon, the Martin Professor of Law, on the faculty since 1973 and a former dean. “He was very conscientious and dedicated.”

In the past few years, Samuels had also started doing his bit to help raise the school’s profile. He was finally building a reputation as a significant scholar. Part of the explanation for his newfound energy, some said, was that Samuels’s two children—Richard, a Tufts graduate who now works with a tech firm in Massachusetts, and Claire, a student at Brandeis—were gone, leaving him more time to work. His wife of more than twenty years, Marcia, an editor at John Wiley & Sons, was also spending more time at work.

In 2002, Samuels filed an amicus brief on an important copyright case before the U.S. Supreme Court that established him as one of the top authorities in his field. He also kept up with the technological advances that have affected copyright law over the past few years, and his 2000 Illustrated Story of Copyright, a user-friendly overview that included drawings, caricatures, and photographs, devoted two chapters to computers and the Internet. Curiously, it even featured a photograph of Samuels’s home computer setup, the place where police presumably found his stash of porn, a Power Mac outfitted with a miniature video camera, a scanner, and two printers.

If Samuels’s colleagues were shocked by the charges, so too were students, some of whom said he had a winning teaching style. He “tried to make things fun,” one said, by bringing props related to the cases under discussion, like Mickey Mouse figurines or pictures he had taken of the Grand Canyon, and actively helped students find internships and jobs.

With the staff, however, he seemed to have been more aloof. Argento, Samuels’s former assistant, said that in the five years she worked for him, Samuels never once walked into her office, located about twenty feet away from his, to say good morning. She estimated that they had four or five conversations in five years. Her work for him was limited to faxing and copying. Though she had the password to every other professor’s computer, she never had Samuels’s password, and she never did anything that would have meant using his computer. She was baffled to find herself thanked in his book. “We chalked it up to ‘He’s a weird guy,’ ” she said.

During the first lengthy faculty meeting after Samuels’s arrest, a number of issues surfaced, among them how the technicians had found the images. “There was a lot of ‘You mean anything that’s on my computer, anyone at school can see?’ ” one professor remembered. “People tried to divert it to ‘What are our privacy rights?’ and the dean was put on the defensive, not because the majority of the faculty felt this way but because they were the most vocal.”

Samuels remained on leave until the investigation was complete. But some staff and faculty members complained that he appeared to be unrepentant, using his “leave” to update his Website and advance his research. Though he often showed up after-hours in the office, he also popped in on regular workdays. And shortly after his arrest, he’d arrived in the IT department to work on a computer, only yards away from the technicians who had discovered his secret.

“It was very uncomfortable,” one longtime faculty member said. “He came to a meeting where hiring of faculty was discussed, and people would say, ‘We may have an opening in copyright, depending on what happens with Ed,’ and Ed was sitting right there.”

In an open meeting held soon after with faculty, Matasar asked for a show of hands on who was uncomfortable with having Samuels around. Not a single hand went up. Yet several faculty members said that a silent majority of professors were appalled and uncomfortable with the situation.

“Most professors were being very professional with him, looking at it from a legal standpoint,” said Argento, who left the school in February. “I told them, ‘I’m not asking you from a legal standpoint, I’m asking you from a personal standpoint: Did that turn your stomach?’ ”

If the staff had felt uncomfortable with Samuels’s presence, what came next ensured they would feel downright queasy. On Tuesday, October 22, Dorothea Perry and Rob Gross were fired. Neither had been in trouble before the Samuels job. Perry, who had worked at the school for twelve years, had received her evaluation from Collegis the previous November, and her work had been rated “excellent.” Gross, who had been there since 2001, had received an evaluation three months before the Samuels discovery that read “fully competent plus.” “I knew I had been punished for Samuels,” Perry says. “When I was fired, I told them, ‘I know you have children. I know all of you have children. How could you do this?’ ”

The time line leading to their dismissal was suspicious. Both employees were put on probation after their discovery and were fired shortly before Collegis renewed its multi-million-dollar contract with the school. In addition, Perry had said on a number of occasions that she felt Samuels had committed a grave offense. Four days after her discovery, for instance, she e-mailed Perley, her Collegis supervisor at the school, to tell her that she had looked into the matter of child porn and now knew it to be a serious crime. The e-mail was sent before the school contacted the D.A.

Their story is not, however, a classic example of whistle-blowers being punished. In this case, the institution alerted the authorities as soon as it had gotten advice from counsel, and cooperated fully. Matasar strictly followed the D.A.’s directive not to alert Samuels, which would later earn him the wrath of some professors.

But there are a number of reasons why Collegis might have wanted Perry and Gross gone. A former Collegis director said that these kinds of cases bring negative publicity to the company, putting it at risk of losing IT contracts with other universities. “The last thing you want to do is piss off a client,” the former director said. “If you piss off a client, you’re history.”

Outraged, Perry and Gross have since filed a $15 million civil suit against both New York Law School and Collegis. After receiving his first probation letter, Gross e-mailed Margaret Perley: “I feel as if I am being martyrized for my finding,” he wrote in July. “After complying with your request for a written statement and a personal interview with … a member of the District Attorney’s office, I thought this matter was over and felt I would not be penalized for protecting the rights of children.”

Matasar says he had specifically asked Collegis to reform the help desk, where Gross and Perry worked, and that their dismissal was probably the result of his demands. The computer labs were in terrible condition, Matasar says, and he got countless complaints from students about them. Professors were also complaining that their machines were not getting fixed fast enough. Although Nadine Strossen, the head of the ACLU and a faculty member, gave Perry a letter of recommendation when she left the school, a number of professors seemed to think there might have been a good reason to fire the employees. One mentioned that Perry “came and went as she wanted” and added she was “sort of brassy.”

“We did absolutely nothing wrong,” Matasar said heatedly during an interview. “We were the whistleblowers. We. I. And this law school. I, as dean of the law school under advice from our counsel, made the decision to turn this information over to the D.A.’s office. We, the law school, placed Edward Samuels on leave. We, the law school, have had to deal with the consequences of losing a 25-year member of the faculty … If we are to be held captive by bad employees by the mere circumstance that they were involved in discovering criminal activity, we couldn’t get our work done!”

Collegis denies the firings had anything to do with Samuels and says the timing was a coincidence. Professor Jonakait agrees: “I don’t think the firing looked particularly good, but I did not come to the conclusion that there was a connection.”

In April 14, Samuels pleaded guilty to 100 counts of possessing child pornography, and most of the professors wanted him out. But again, he didn’t resign immediately; instead, he haggled over how much he believed he should be paid to leave. A faculty inquiry was commissioned. Samuels’s salary was probably over $150,000 a year, and according to Matasar, he was demanding “a lot of money.” It wasn’t until ten days later that the two sides reached an agreement, and Samuels resigned. “I want to have sympathy for him,” one longtime member of the faculty said. “But I find it hard because he didn’t do the right thing as soon as he was capable. If anything, he seemed to be pushing in the other direction.”

Despite his guilty plea, some professors feel that the public scrutiny his case has received, and the destruction of his career, have been punishment enough.

Martin Levin, a former student and current adjunct faculty, said Samuels was more to be pitied than censored. “This may be a class-E felony, but it’s a psychiatric problem,” he said. “If he were an alcoholic or a drug addict, wouldn’t he be sent to counseling?”

Jonakait has received about twenty testimonials, which have been presented to the sentencing judge. The letters, he said, express a great deal of respect for Samuels’s integrity as a professor, and many writers, he added, mentioned that knowing the facts of the Samuels case didn’t affect their regard for his professionalism.

Since his arrest, friends claim, Samuels has been in therapy, and his family has stood resolutely by him. In a brief exchange in the lobby of his apartment building, Samuels declined to be interviewed for this piece.

No one has organized a letter-writing campaign for Perry or Gross. Since they were fired, they have sent out countless résumés, but both are still unemployed.

As Samuels now waits in sentencing limbo, some of his former colleagues still hope he won’t end up in jail. “There can’t be a happy ending, but there ought to be some kind of soft landing,” says Levin. “I don’t like to see somebody who’s creative and been so useful ending up in this kind of situation.”

The Professor and the Porn