Tuesday, March 11, 2003

E-mail prank dumb, but is it criminal?

I like to be as tough on college kids as the next middle-aged citizen. After all, they are unwrinkled, unapologetic and unmortgaged. So, I look for every opportunity to take them down a peg or two. But the most recent news out of Oxford's Miami University seems harsh.

Benjamin Field, a 22-year-old computer science major at Miami, was accused of sending out a hoax e-mail canceling classes on Green Beer Day, March 6, and charged with a fifth-degree felony. Conviction carries a penalty of up to a year in prison and a $2,500 fine.

Other offenses that rise to the level of a fifth-degree felony include breaking and entering, possessing criminal tools and menacing by stalking. A college prank seems out of place in this criminal company. The Miami University senior didn't hack into the university's Web site. He didn't give anybody a virus. He didn't pretend to be a personal friend, then try to sell you ink cartridges or hot teen videos.

Unbelievably dumb

Field allegedly just pretended that a day of classes was cancelled in an e-mail message that was supposed to be from Miami University President James Garland, saying school was called off "due to circumstances beyond my control."

Dumb. Unbelievably dumb. Unbelievably.

"I knew right away it was a fake," says Liz Annett, a senior from Hyde Park. "I mean, come on. Classes called off on Green Beer Day? No way." Besides, she says, it didn't look like the official communications she usually gets from school. "Everybody was definitely in all my classes that day."

Then again, Annett's a senior, wise to the ways of the university world. So, I asked David McClellan, a freshman from Mount Washington. "I was kinda hoping it was real, but it just didn't sound right." And the student tom-tom was perfected long before the gigabyte. "People were going up and down the hallway saying it was fake," he said.

Alternative sentence?

Holly Wissing, a Miami spokeswoman, said, "The university considers this a very serious matter." The student faces possible disciplinary action from the university, which could mean dismissal.

As Liz Annett might say, come on.

Dismissal? Prison?

Let's speak sternly to this young man. Let's embarrass him. Let's insist that he make some sort of restitution. Maybe he could clean up High Street on Sunday mornings for a month. Or, since he dissed the president, he could mow his lawn all summer. Even better, the university might make Field contact each and every alumnus who has declined to send money since the Redskins became the RedHawks.

During their search of Field's apartment, police found a small amount of marijuana and drug paraphernalia and also charged him with two misdemeanor drug offenses. Tell his mother.

Field is to appear Thursday in Butler County Court. Jason Phillabaum of the prosecutor's office said in cases like this, the person might get a chance to plead guilty to a lesser charge. How about fifth-degree stupidity? Maybe if he did it, Field could admit he doesn't know everything. And that he has learned an important lesson.

Which sounds like the very reason we send our kids off to school in the first place.

E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com or phone 768-8393.

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PULFER: E-mail prank dumb, but is it criminal?

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