A former journalist whose track record includes being fired from the Tribune Co. and from Reuters is facing two decades in prison for giving the hacking group Anonymous credentials to log into a Tribune web site and change stuff.

Anonymous changed one headline, and it took about 40 minutes for someone at Tribune Co. to notice and change it back.

It reminds me of something that happened at the newspaper where I used to work.

I don’t know exactly when this happened or who did it, but this story was repeated often when I was working at the Columbia Missourian from 1995-1997.

In the 1990s, the heading across each page of the Columbia Missourian read, “Good morning! It’s May 18, 1994,” or whatever was appropriate for the date, near the page number.

One night, a bored paginator decided to have some fun and he changed “Good morning!” to say, “Kiss my ass.” And he didn’t change it back. Whether this was intentional or unintentional, I don’t know.

And nobody who looked at the page prior to sending it to press noticed. That’s understandable; that part of the page isn’t supposed to change, except for the date. I don’t know whether Pagemaker could automatically change the date for them, but it probably did have that functionality, so there was no reason for that header to be wrong.

Someone did notice it after a few copies had been printed. I don’t know if we were talking a few dozen, a few hundred, or a few thousand copies. But there was real, monetary damage there. Lots of paper was ruined and had to be reprinted, and there was labor and overtime involved in fixing the mistake, reprinting, and missing the usual deadline. I guarantee management knew exactly what the prank cost them, right down to the penny.

Needless to say, the paginator was fired. I never heard any talk of legal action.

Fast-forward a couple of decades. Obviously it’s bad form to give a password to Anonymous and tell them in a profanity-laced way to have fun. Quantifying the actual damage is difficult though–Anonymous changed a headline, and either he or Anonymous sent some harassing e-mail to members of Tribune’s staff. It took 40 minutes for someone to notice the headline change and fix it. The harassing e-mail messages are unfortunate, but a fact of life these days. In my day, it was easier to call the newspaper than it was to find my e-mail address–I had a web page and it was on it, but the search engines were terrible–so I got harassing phone calls. It happens.

If the infractions had taken place in the analog world rather than involving the Internet, we’d be talking a couple of misdemeanors here. He’d have to do some community service, he’d likely have to get anger management training, and he’d probably have to refrain from communicating with or going near any of his former coworkers. His former employer and coworkers would get protection and one way or another he’d learn a lesson about how adults are supposed to behave. That’s assuming it would go to court at all–word travels fast and far enough in the journalism field that it wouldn’t be all that difficult for his former bosses to spread the word and make it all but impossible for him to ever work in journalism again, and let that be the end of it. It’s much faster and less messy that way.

But since his infractions aren’t just ordinary infractions, but rather, those dreaded CYBERinfractions™*, now we have to start talking about federal prison. The cost to society of imprisoning him will far outweigh his debt to society for changing a headline and harassing his former coworkers. The federal prosecutors are saying they’ll seek about five years, rather than the maximum of 25, but even five years is ridiculous.

This insanity is nothing new, but it really needs to stop, and the sooner, the better. This is worse than drug laws, where Willie Aikens was sentenced to 15 times as long of a sentence for selling crack cocaine than he would have received for selling powdered cocaine.

There are better uses for our tax dollars than imprisoning people for misusing a username and a password.

*Be glad I didn’t break out the blink tag. Be very glad.