Nightmare on the Net

A web of intrigue surrounds the high-stakes legal brawl between FACTnet and the Church of Scientology.

Equally offensive to Scientology supporters has been the defense's assault on the legitimacy of the copyrights themselves. Wollersheim claims to have evidence that some of Hubbard's religious writings were registered improperly, were allowed to lapse into the public domain, or were actually written by others.

"They don't own many of the copyrights that they claim we are infringing," he says. "They didn't think we would dig far enough to find out what was going on. What they didn't realize is that one of their intelligence people has left the organization and has assisted us."

Wollersheim declines to identify his secret source, but FACTNet recently filed a declaration in the case from Vaughn Young, who was CSI's official spokesman for many years and left the church in 1989. Young claims there are numerous irregularities in the copyright registrations of Hubbard's work and says he was involved in an effort in the early 1980s to register works that had supposedly lapsed into the public domain years before; he also claims to have written parts of Battlefield Earth, Hubbard's sprawling ten-part series of science fiction novels.

Scientology officials have denounced Young as a bitter enemy who now makes his living as a paid consultant in litigation against the church. But this isn't the first time the authenticity of Hubbard's work has come under attack. In the early 1980s a former CSI staff member named David Mayo formed a competing organization, the Church of the New Civilization; when RTC sued him, claiming he was making unauthorized use of stolen Scientology "tech" materials, Mayo countered that he and others had actually written several key Advanced Technology documents that had been ascribed to Hubbard.

The complex case lurched through the California courts for more than eight years, swelling to encompass more than a hundred volumes of court filings. After RTC failed to comply with numerous discovery orders, a judge dismissed RTC's claims and awarded Mayo $2.9 million in attorneys' fees; that decision was upheld by a federal appeals court last year.

Church officials have vowed to vigorously defend the latest challenge to the AT writings. While declining to comment on the specific allegations raised in the counterclaims, RTC's Kobrin says the FACTNet team "is obviously attempting to litigate the case by derailing consideration of the merits and going off on wild-goose chases. We are confident that the magistrate judge will ensure that the discovery remains focused on matters that are related to issues raised by the pleadings."

Wollersheim exudes confidence, too. FACTNet's library and its audience are now bigger than ever, he says, thanks to the notoriety of the raid and the court case. At the same time, he isn't beyond slipping a pitch for donations into his boasting.

"We believe we'll have the money we need so that Scientology doesn't win this simply because they have more money," he says. "But it's going to be a struggle. Right now we have thirty to sixty days' financing. We really need people who feel strongly about the Internet to put their money into a project they all should defend. This is their fight, too. This is not Lawrence Wollersheim's fight with Scientology."

But many of FACTNet's former supporters have become suspicious of Wollersheim's crusade, because of either the ouster of Penny or the organization's overall shift in direction. In an apparent effort to broaden the group's donor base, the new FACTNet Web page focuses on far-ranging issues of privacy and free speech on the Internet, rather than being devoted solely to information about religious cults. Only gradually have some archives dealing with Scientology begun to surface on the site--but not fast enough to suit the church's avid critics.

"I can no longer support FACTNet nor encourage others to support it, since the organization, as originally conceived, no longer exists," one disgruntled Web-surfer complained to the newsgroup alt.religion.scientology.

"FACTNet is building in a new direction that honors its roots," Wollersheim says. "There are political and corporate threats that, in some areas of the world, are worse than Scientology. Scientology is a battle that's forced on us, but we need to get done with this and set up Web pages for people in the Third World to discuss abuse in their countries. Our long-term goal is to be a sister organization, technologically, to Amnesty International in the area of free speech, free thought and privacy."

Some Internet activists consider FACTNet's new emphasis to be redundant of efforts by more established groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and the Center for Democracy and Technology.

"EFF, EPIC, CDT--there's a whole alphabet soup of these groups," notes Ron Newman, who operates an extensive Web site dealing with Scientology and the Internet. "I'm not sure it's useful to add one more, and I'm not convinced that FACTNet is adequately staffed to do this properly. If they're going to take on a new mission, then they should add six or seven people to the board and explain to what extent they're going to continue doing what they were previously doing."

At the moment, the hot button among anti-Scientology activists isn't the FACTNet lawsuit but the strange case of Lisa McPherson, a 36-year-old Scientologist who died late in 1995 after several days of being kept in isolation at the group's spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, Florida. An autopsy report concluded that the cause of death was blood clotting resulting from "bed rest and severe dehydration."

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