Court rejects term paper ad claim

MASSACHUSETTS – Boston University’s lawsuit against companies that sell term papers over the Internet was thrown out by a federal judge in December. But university officials say they will refile the case in state court.

The university filed the lawsuit in October 1997 against eight companies and individuals that sell research materials online. According to the university, officials conducted a “sting” operation by posing as students who were seeking term papers to turn in as their own work for university assignments. After uncovering Web sites that they alleged sold them papers for such a purpose, the university sought an injunction in federal court to prevent the companies from selling term papers in Massachusetts and asked the court to dissolve the companies. Several of the companies settled the university’s claims against out of court.

Both the companies and First Amendment advocates questioned the legitimacy of the lawsuit and the implications it could have for free speech. They suggested that the claim could pose a threat to any publisher who distributes information that is used by someone else for an inappropriate or illegal purpose.

“I shouldn’t be compelled to know what someone is going to do with information I provide,” Barton Lowe, the owner of Research Assistance, one of the companies named in the lawsuit, told the Chronicle of Higher Education soon after the lawsuit was filed.

Although Massachusetts state law makes the sale of term papers a criminal offense in certain contexts, U.S. District Court Judge Patti Saris noted that the Commonwealth’s attorneys have refused to prosecute and that the law did not create a private cause of action that would allow the university to bring a lawsuit under it. The judge also ruled that the university had not established the requirements for bringing the case in federal court. She said in her December decision in Trustees of Boston University v. ASM Communication, No. 97-12365-PBS (December 4, 1998), that the federal anti-racketeering law used by the university to go after the companies, which typically is used to pursue organized-crime figures, did not apply to businesses that exist solely to sell term papers.

But Boston University officials have pledged to pursue the matter by refiling the case in state court.

“[The term paper companies] are still going to be in court facing years of litigation over what we believe is unlawful and immoral,” said university lawyer Robert Smith to the Chronicle.