Nightmare on the Net
Strange things happen around Lawrence Wollersheim.
His businesses collapse. His Boulder apartment gets raided by federal marshals, his computers seized. When college students offer to help him rebuild his computer bulletin-board system, they receive threatening phone calls--anonymous voices urging them to stay away from Larry.
A California judge who presided over a lawsuit in which Wollersheim was the plaintiff told reporters he'd encountered a lot of "funny stuff" during the five-month trial, including slashed tires on his car and strangers tailing him. Recently, Wollersheim says, someone claiming to be him contacted his bank in a clumsy attempt to obtain his financial records.
"We've been under constant security threat for the last several weeks," he says. "My girlfriend's family has been scared. My friends have been called up and harassed. I spend time repairing my staff, who are intimidated. I'm used to it, but college kids don't know how to deal with stuff like this. What they do is eat pizza and work on computers, and all of a sudden, somebody's following them."
He shakes his head. "I can't talk about this, but I can tell you, there are countersuits coming," he says. "We're going to sue the living shit out of everyone involved in this. It's going to be one lawsuit after another and another. They're going to be burned in public relations and financially."
"They," in Wollersheim's world, happen to be the leaders of the Church of Scientology International, the religious empire founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, which Wollersheim blames for many of the darker moments in his life. A former Scientologist who left the church seventeen years ago, he's been mired in litigation with CSI and its various corporate entities ever since--a multi-million-dollar struggle that's been waged in a series of state and federal courts and has even stretched into the darkest regions of cyberspace.
In recent years Wollersheim and other Scientology critics have used Internet chat rooms and newsgroups, private bulletin-board systems and Web pages to publicize their grievances, offering savage commentaries on church teachings, claims of alleged criminal activity by church leaders, first-person accounts of alleged retaliation against dissidents, and archives of legal documents stemming from the voluminous civil litigation filed by disenchanted ex-members. Scientology supporters have responded by denouncing the efforts as a smear campaign, by anonymously canceling messages or spamming entire newsgroups they consider offensive.
The confrontation escalated to new heights two years ago, when church officials escorted by federal marshals conducted a series of raids and seized computer equipment in California, Virginia and Colorado, claiming that the owners had obtained unauthorized copies of the secret, upper-level scriptures of Scientology and had distributed the material on the Internet, in violation of copyright and trade-secret laws ("Stalking the Net," October 4, 1995). Attorneys for Bridge Publications and Religious Technology Center, the CSI-affiliated groups that administer the copyrights to Hubbard's published and unpublished writings, also sued or threatened to sue Internet service providers, an anonymous remailer in Finland (a service that allows users to post e-mail anonymously), and dozens of Internet users who posted excerpts of the contested documents online--triggering gigabytes of outrage that have drawn free-speech activists, computer law experts, hackers and Net-heads into the conflict.
One of the principal targets of the raids was the Fight Against Coercive Tactics Network (FACTNet), a Golden-based computer archive and bulletin-board system founded by Wollersheim and ex-Scientologist Bob Penny. Church officials seized computers from Wollersheim's apartment, from Penny's home in Niwot and from FACTNet boardmember Arnaldo Lerma in Virginia and filed federal lawsuits against the three, whom they branded as "copyright terrorists" bent on damaging CSI economically. (At present, the only church-sanctioned way to view Hubbard's closely guarded "Advanced Technology" [AT] writings is to submit to hundreds of hours of costly Scientology training until one has attained the "proper level of spiritual enlightenment" to be exposed to the materials.)
Since the raids, the FACTNet case has taken more turns than a corkscrew. The church's attorneys have hailed as a "clear victory" the decision of a federal judge in the Virginia case, who found that Lerma committed copyright infringement by posting Scientology materials; yet that same judge concluded that the church's "primary motivation" in suing Lerma and his Internet provider "is to stifle criticism of Scientology in general and to harass its critics."
FACTNet hasn't escaped unscathed, either. Over the course of the litigation, Wollersheim has feuded not only with Scientology but with fellow members of FACTNet's board of directors, which is now down to two: Wollersheim and Lerma. He's also had a falling-out with Denver media lawyer Tom Kelley of Faegre & Benson, at one point the lead defense attorney in both the Colorado and Virginia suits. Kelley's firm, which ran up bills in excess of $1.4 million in nine months, withdrew from the fray last summer.
FACTNet has now spent more than $1.7 million on the litigation, most of it money from insurance carriers that will soon run out. And the tiny nonprofit has been sharply criticized by some former supporters for its perceived harsh treatment of Bob Penny, who is suffering from multiple sclerosis and has been trying desperately for months to be removed from the lawsuit.
For all that, Wollersheim is curiously upbeat about the case. FACTNet is back in business, he notes, with a new Web page (www.factnet.org) and an expanded mission. And he's assembled what he describes as a "dream team" of lawyers with formidable experience in litigating against Scientology. A few weeks ago the team filed a barrage of counterclaims in the suit, charging that the search warrants for the raids were obtained under false pretenses and seeking damages for trespass, invasion of privacy, abuse of process, outrageous conduct and other claims.
The church's attorneys maintain that the claims are belated and without merit, but they signal a shift in legal strategy, a counteroffensive that Wollersheim says will extend to attacking the legitimacy of the copyrights of some of Hubbard's works, based on "new information" he's obtained from defectors from the church.
"This started out as a copyright and trade-secret case," he says. "We were the 'copyright terrorists'; this was supposedly the largest infringement in history. It's totally turned into a copyright-abuse case. There's so much wrong with the copyrights of Scientology that we suspect they're going to try to back-door out of the case very fast. But they're not going to be able to, because of our counterclaims.
"They're going to be paying for this a long time. They're going to lose much of the con--the copyright and trade-secret con they've been playing on people."
Such bravado may sound hollow, given FACTNet's dwindling funds and the enormous resources of the Church of Scientology, which spends millions on litigation every year. But Wollersheim has a long history of legal victories against Scientology groups--Pyrrhic victories though they may be. In 1986 a jury awarded him $30 million in damages against CSI's California organization, which he claimed used coercive tactics to keep him in the fold and then harassed him and destroyed his business. The award was reduced to $2.5 million on appeal; he has yet to collect. Church entities subsequently sued him three times, but all three cases were dismissed. In one action, the judge determined that the suit was so groundless as to qualify, under California law, as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP), and he awarded Wollersheim's attorneys more than a quarter-million dollars for fees and costs.
For both sides, the stakes have never been higher than they are in the FACTNet case. Scientology's attorneys seek to protect not only their copyrights but also the confidential nature of their upper-level scriptures; preserving their secrecy, they insist, is a central tenet of the religion. But Wollersheim contends that the copyright case is nothing but a ruse to stifle criticism and crush free speech on the Internet.
"If Scientology wins this case, you're going to have other bullies imitating them," he says. "You're going to have e-mail censorship. Service providers' insurance will go up, and so will access rates. If they're allowed to win this by having more money than we have, it's going to burn the whole fucking Internet."
Religious Technology Center attorney Helena Kobrin responds that her clients aren't trying to censor anyone but are simply protecting their copyrights. "Anyone who is familiar with what has gone on here and is not too possessed of ulterior motives to see the truth can see that we are neither targeting nor stopping criticism," Kobrin says. "The people we have sued have not become less critical, but they have been stopped from violating my clients' intellectual-property rights."
Public opinion about Scientology has always been of two minds. On one hand, Hubbard's gospel of spiritual freedom through conquest of the "reactive mind"--first advanced in the book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health in 1950 and established as a religion in Los Angeles four years later--appears to be achieving growing legitimacy in the United States, despite years of media exposes and a costly tangle of federal tax and criminal investigations in the 1970s. In 1993, seven years after Hubbard's death, the IRS finally restored the church's tax-exempt status, and a coterie of high-profile parishioners, including John Travolta and Tom Cruise, continue to promote the benefits of the religion in countless media interviews.
At the same time, Scientology groups have come under increasing attack in Europe. A Greek court has denied the organization religious status in that country, and late last year 29 Scientologists were sentenced to jail in Italy for criminal association. German officials have also cracked down on Scientologists and barred them from civil-service jobs, drawing criticism from the U.S. State Department and prompting CSI to establish a "hatewatch" section on its official Web site (www.scientology.org) to document Germany's "persecution of religious minorities."
The contrast between America's acceptance of Scientology and the battles being waged by other governments has become a sore point for FACTNet director Arnie Lerma, who's taken to posting on his Web page photos of church officials under indictment in Europe. The FACTNet director has also been making the rounds of CSI press conferences held to protest the German government's policies. Lerma, of course, is eager to offer a dissenting view.
Last month Lerma showed up at one such forum in Washington, D.C. He wasn't allowed inside, so he lingered in the hall, trying to get the attention of several Scientology celebrities who'd turned out for the occasion. He wound up handing Chick Corea a card with his Web address.
The next day, he crashed another Scientology gathering at the National Press Club and introduced himself as a fellow whose home had been raided by church officials, "some of whom are in this room right now." He proceeded to read the following passage from Judge Leonie Brinkema's ruling in his copyright-infringement case:
"Scientologists believe that most human problems can be traced to lingering spirits of an extraterrestrial people massacred by their ruler, Xenu, over 75 million years ago. These spirits attach themselves by 'clusters' to individuals in the contemporary world, causing spiritual harm and negatively influencing the lives of their hosts."
For Lerma, the recitation was one more shot in the chops to the belief system he'd followed for ten years and had come to despise. The quote reflected Judge Brinkema's summary, in her own words, of the church's sacred cosmology--the same secret writings that were at issue in the case.
In the summer of 1995, Lerma, recently appointed to FACTNet's board of directors, posted more than sixty pages of Hubbard's Advanced Technology documents on the Internet. How Lerma came into possession of the materials is still a matter of dispute; the story of Xenu and his galactic massacre had surfaced before, most notably two years earlier, in the case of Steven Fishman, an ex-Scientologist who was being sued by the church for libel. That case has since been dropped, but not before Fishman managed to enter into the court record more than one hundred pages of exhibits, including AT materials he claimed to have purchased from another Scientologist. Church officials maintain that the documents were stolen and that they couldn't have been copied from the court because loyal followers were dispatched to check out the file every day until a judge finally sealed the documents, days after Lerma's posting.
Lerma maintains that he should have the right to post such documents. In his online manifesto, "The Liberty Tree," he likens his postings of official court records concerning Scientology to the actions of Revolutionary War agitators. "What's the difference," he asks, "between me taking a copy of something, putting a nail in it, and hanging it on a tree in the town square, or having a virtual community see the same document, using the computer as a means of viewing it?"
But attorneys for Scientology's Religious Technology Center (RTC) viewed the postings as a blatant copyright infringement--and a violation of the church's "trade secrets," which Hubbard's followers pay dearly to learn. They filed suit against Lerma. When Wollersheim and Penny of FACTNet issued a press release affirming their support of Lerma's actions and urging "volunteers" to "immediately begin putting up 100-1000 times more Fishman affidavit type public records on Scientology into worldwide distribution on the Internet," RTC sued FACTNet as well; attorneys would later claim to have found hundreds of additional copyright infringements on the computers seized in the raids. And when the Washington Post reported on the controversy, quoting briefly from the Fishman papers, they sued the Post, too.
Judge Brinkema quickly dismissed the action against the Post, ruling that the newspaper's use of the materials constituted fair use and that RTC was liable for the paper's legal fees. She then threw out the trade-secret claims, ruling that Lerma's actions didn't constitute trade-secret violations (U.S. District Judge John Kane has ventured a similar opinion in the case against Wollersheim and Penny, writing that the Advanced Technology writings "have come into the public domain by numerous means" and probably don't qualify as trade secrets under Colorado law). But Brinkema also found that Lerma's postings, unlike the Post account, consisted of "verbatim copying wholly devoid of criticism or other commentary" and thus could not be justified as fair use.
Last January Lerma was fined $2,500 for five violations of the Copyright Act. RTC had sought an additional $500,000 in legal fees, but Judge Brinkema denied the request.
RTC attorney Kobrin notes that the judge rejected Lerma's argument that the Internet should be treated differently from other media in copyright cases. "I don't think there is any doubt from Judge Brinkema's findings as to who won," she says. "RTC's goal was to vindicate its rights; this it did."
But Lerma, too, regards the outcome as a kind of vindication, since Brinkema declined to grant Hubbard's writings the status of trade secrets and thwarted "the church's attempt to crush me financially" by refusing to award legal fees. "I'm incredibly grateful that things turned out as well as they did," Lerma says. At the same time, he takes issue with Brinkema's ruling on fair use, noting that he'd scanned and posted dozens of other court documents before he sent the Fishman papers hurtling across the ether.
"In the context of all my posting activities, it's unequivocally fair use," he insists, "but the judge chose to interpret it as one posting devoid of comment. I was trying to protect the integrity of the document by not commenting. That intent is lost in this interpretation of a copyright law written for newspapers."
Church officials take the position that there can be no "fair use" of their secret scriptures by outsiders. RTC's attorneys were so incensed at even Judge Brinkema's passing reference to Xenu, which they claimed was a mischaracterization of Scientology beliefs, that they appealed to another judge to seal her ruling. (Brinkema promptly unsealed it.)
The Advanced Technology files found on Wollersheim's and Penny's equipment remain under seal in the Colorado case, which has yet to go to trial. Since the raids, though, excerpts of Hubbard's secret writings have surfaced on a variety of Web sites around the world. Kobrin says that not only are the ongoing copyright infringements an economic threat to CSI but that they interfere with the rights of Hubbard's followers "to practice their religion as they see fit." She says she hears frequently from Scientology parishioners "who are greatly distressed by these pirates whose goal is to destroy their religious scriptures."
Yet many of the sites have been set up by defiant computer buffs--individuals who have no prior connection to Scientology but believe it's their duty as "Netizens" to fight what they regard as efforts at censorship.
"I've been involved in various anti-censorship movements on the Net," says Ray Randolph, a systems administrator for a Fortune 100 company in Boulder who's put up an anti-Scientology Web page. "But this--it's become a pretty serious hobby. I've bought over 450 pounds of Scientology documents. At first it was just the censorship thing, but at some point it dawned on me that this thing has real victims out there."
Randolph's site has steered clear of the Fishman papers, which have all but vanished from U.S. sites, but it does feature first-person accounts by former Scientologists of alleged mistreatment, a multimedia archive of photos and soundbites, and links to other archives. One of his aims, Randolph says, is to present evidence, culled from Hubbard's own writings and lectures, that contradicts claims that Scientology is "compatible" with Christianity.
"The biggest complaint I get when I talk to Scientologists is that I'm taking stuff out of context," he explains. "So my answer has been to provide the whole document; then there's no question about context."
Two weeks ago Randolph received an e-mail message from Helena Kobrin, demanding that he remove several items from his site that Kobrin considered to be copyright infringements. Randolph replied that he would remove some files, but he insisted that his handling of others qualified as fair use.
"What I'm doing is almost like civil disobedience," he says. "If I get burned, okay, but what they're doing needs to be exposed somehow."
More than three months before the raids on FACTNet, Larry Wollersheim wrote to donors to advise them that his fledgling nonprofit was under siege--threatened with "frivolous lawsuits" and "black PR smear tactics" orchestrated by members or agents of Scientology. Noting that the church had recently filed suit against Dennis Erlich, an outspoken ex-Scientology minister, and his Internet provider, Wollersheim added, "We have reason to believe that, under false pretenses and accusations, we may be raided and our equipment seized."
When it finally happened, the timing of the raid may have caught Wollersheim by surprise--he was in bed with his girlfriend--but he'd been preparing for such an event for some time.
"Did I know they would raid us? I didn't know that," he says now. "Did I suspect that Scientology would do something to harm us that would involve us in litigation sooner or later? Hey, I had been in four other lawsuits with them."
Such foresight had prompted FACTNet's directors to take out two separate million-dollar insurance policies to help fund a defense in any litigation against the company. The premiums were almost more than their budget could handle, Wollersheim says. At the time of the raid, "we were one month away from not being able to make our insurance payment," he says. "We would have been dead in the water."
Wollersheim argues that the searches of his home and Penny's, authorized by federal judge Lewis Babcock, would never have occurred if Babcock had been fully informed about Wollersheim's history of litigation against Scientology, FACTNet's status as a nonprofit electronic archive, the intended use of the unpublished documents on their computers (which, he says, were part of a database being prepared for attorneys in another case against the church and weren't for public consumption) and other key factors. Yet one could also make a case that Wollersheim and Penny practically invited the raids by declaring FACTNet's support of Lerma's actions, urging more postings of the Fishman papers (which church attorneys regard as proof that the group was encouraging people to violate copyright laws) and other provocations.
"We leaked out that we had no insurance," Wollersheim says. "We had a plant in the organization, and I knew we were going to run out of money. I figured if it was going to happen, it should happen quickly. They bit the bait and came right in."
The ensuing litigation quickly became a tar baby for all concerned. In most copyright disputes, $2 million would represent an adequate war chest, but not in the FACTNet case, which has already produced more than 700 discovery requests and a ceaseless barrage of motions and pleadings; one motion by RTC's attorneys for summary judgment (recently denied by Judge Kane) was accompanied by a dozen boxes full of supporting exhibits. The million dollars from the first insurance policy was exhausted in less than six months.
The second carrier, Coregis Insurance, was reluctant to pay up, compelling the FACTNet defendants to file suit against the company that was supposed to be funding their defense. Although the exact terms of settlement of that suit are sealed, court records indicate that Coregis agreed to pay up to $925,000 to cover ongoing legal costs. By that point, FACTNet already owed nearly half that amount to the law firm of Faegre & Benson, which had been retained by the insurers to defend both the Virginia and Colorado cases and had run up bills in excess of $1.4 million by last April.
Wollersheim makes no secret of his feelings about the lawyers who were thrust upon him in the early months of the case. "We're going to be suing Faegre for malpractice and bad-faith litigation," he says. "The first week I asked them to remove themselves because they were incapable of handling this case. Plus, there was such antagonism between Tom Kelley and me that he had a conflict of interest trying to represent me. It got so bad that we wouldn't even talk to each other."
Kelley, a First Amendment specialist who frequently represents Denver media organizations, denies any mishandling of the case. "My relationship with some of the FACTNet people is not as good as it once was," he says. "I'm reluctant to talk about it. But I don't think there's any question that FACTNet and Mr. Lerma got the best representation available, and that was demonstrated by the result in the Lerma case."
The staggering cost of the litigation, Kelley adds, had a lot to do with the tactics employed by his opponents. "The Church of Scientology has proven to be a litigation machine that can drain the resources of an opponent," he says. "In the Lerma case, we had not only constant discovery but weekly motions--all of which required extensive briefing and argument. In Colorado, things have been less intense, but certainly the scorched-earth approach to litigation has been much the same."
Lerma and Wollersheim both say they clashed with the Faegre & Benson defense team over several issues--including the firm's seeming lack of experience in cyberspace, despite its claimed expertise in computer law.
"They're fakes," Lerma declares. "They were using us to learn the Net. We didn't even get an e-mail address from these clowns until they'd run up their first half-million in billings. If your own lawyers don't have a clue and won't listen to you, it's impossible to get the judge to understand what you're saying."
"It was a nightmare," Wollersheim says. "Tom Kelley had never been on the Internet, didn't know what an upload or a download was. We told them we had the expertise to handle the internal computer work and save money for the court case. They farmed it out and created a database with eighty-megabyte text files in a format that was totally unusable."
Last August Lerma informed supporters on the Internet that he'd dismissed Faegre & Benson as counsel in his case. The firm soon bowed out of the Colorado case, too, along with another law firm that had been retained as a "buffer" between Kelley and Wollersheim. Kelley says his firm withdrew "because of an irreconcilable conflict of interest among the parties. That's all that's appropriate for me to say."
Wollersheim has a different story. "They got me in an office, and Kelley said, 'I want you to guarantee you're going to pay every single bill we incur,'" he recalls. "I said I had obligations to the organization and would have to review every bill; I would not give him carte blanche. Four days later, all of a sudden this conflict of interest comes up and they have to resign from the case. They knew about this alleged conflict from month three."
The conflict, alleged or actual, almost certainly has to do with the role of FACTNet co-founder Bob Penny in the litigation. From the outset, Penny and Wollersheim have offered contradictory explanations about how certain Scientology materials ended up on FACTNet's hard drives. Wollersheim has suggested that Scientology "agents" might have uploaded the documents in an effort to plant evidence (a notion that RTC attorney Todd Blakely has branded "absurd" in light of the church's campaign to protect its copyrights) or that Penny, whose memory has been affected by his battle with multiple sclerosis, may have loaded them by mistake. Penny has said he doesn't know how the documents got there.
"There are hundreds of pages of claimed infringements that Bob Penny swears he didn't put on the database, and he's the only one who did the database," Wollersheim says. "All I have is the memory of a guy with MS. I either have to think Bob is telling the truth or he can't remember."
Around the same time that Faegre & Benson withdrew its representation, Lerma and Wollersheim informed Penny that he was being removed from FACTNet's board of directors. He wasn't the first such casualty; one director in England had been driven into bankruptcy by church-related litigation, and another in South Africa had been persuaded by Scientology officials to sign a "confession" of misdeeds and bow out of the conflict. But Penny's removal from the board didn't remove his liability in the lawsuit.
Six months ago, noting that the stress of the litigation appeared to be taking its toll on Penny's condition, Judge Kane directed both sides to find a way to excuse him from the case. "It's indecent of people to keep you involved," he told Penny. But at this writing, the attorneys are still wrangling over stipulations that would take Penny out of the crossfire; RTC's attorneys say they don't want Wollersheim to be able to shift blame to an "empty chair," but Wollersheim contends that the church is trying to foment dissension between him and Penny's supporters for their own gain.
"Bob is my friend," Wollersheim says. "He should have been out of this case right away. His memory was functionally gone for testifying quite a while ago; I read one of his depositions, and I was ashamed of myself, that I didn't demand that Bob be released. It took the judge to demand it. But Bob wanted to be involved. What I'm trying to do is protect Bob Penny and his heirs so that when this is all over and Scientology and their attorneys have to pay millions for the bullshit they've done, Bob and his kids will benefit."
Contacted at his home, Penny says he's "pretty much unconscious" and hands the phone to a friend, who confirms that Penny wants out of the case and has nothing to do with FACTNet's current activities. The friend also vouches for the accuracy of an article that appeared in the online newsletter Biased Journalism, which stated that Penny disagreed with Lerma and Wollersheim about legal strategy and supported Faegre & Benson's handling of the case.
"Scientology's intelligence operatives try to make a great deal out of situations that don't exist," Wollersheim says. "They know they can't go into court with us, so they're trying to create dissension so people won't donate to us. A lot of this stuff that's come out, it's either completely false or it's a small situation made to look like a big one. Working in a nonprofit under constant security threat, the board of directors are going to get into regular conflicts. But we've always worked them out."
Lerma points out that FACTNet has assembled a diverse group of advisory boardmembers--including entertainer Steve Allen and noted psychologist and cult critic Margaret Singer--and he says the organization is actively recruiting new directors.
"You know anyone who wants to be on the board?" he asks.
FACTNet's new "dream team" of lawyers is headed by Graham Berry, a New Zealand-born, Los Angeles-based attorney who has worked with Wollersheim on other litigation against the Church of Scientology. Church attorneys fought his appearance as defense counsel in the case, contending that Berry, one of the attorneys who'd defended Steve Fishman, was the culprit who had placed Hubbard's secret writings in an open court file and thus was a "necessary witness" in the FACTNet suit. Berry denied this, and Judge Kane ruled he could represent FACTNet.
In the past Berry has proven to be no small irritant to Scientology's defenders. Recently he became involved in the case of Jason Scott, who was awarded more than $5 million in damages against the Cult Awareness Network and various individuals involved in an attempted "deprogramming" of Scott. The judgment signaled the demise of CAN, one of Scientology's sharpest critics, which filed for bankruptcy.
Scott had been represented in the case by Kendrick Moxon, an attorney who handles extensive legal work for the Church of Scientology. But after the case was over, Scott complained that he hadn't received any money from the judgment--even though another Scientology attorney acquired CAN's name, phone number and other assets in the bankruptcy. Scott has since dismissed Moxon and hired one of his most combative opponents--Graham Berry.
Berry views the FACTNet suit as a key turning point in the long, litigious struggle between Scientology and its critics. "I believe this is the mother of all Scientology cases," he says. "If Wollersheim, after fifteen years, is unable to collect a judgment against this organization, what hope is there for anyone else to obtain recompense and justice?"
Since Berry joined the FACTNet defense team, filings in the acrimonious case have become even more caustic, with both sides accusing each other of unethical conduct and threatening to seek sanctions or contempt rulings. In a letter to one of RTC's attorneys, Berry complained of investigators prying into the private lives of his clients and their circle of acquaintances and harassing FACTNet's attorneys and support staff.
"There is no way that you and various co-counsel can justify this outrageous and despicable harassment as a 'lawful investigation' of opposing counsel," he wrote. "You ignore your professional obligations in this regard at the peril of yourself and your law firm."
While denying any misconduct, Scientology's attorneys have, in turn, protested Berry's efforts to depose a long list of potential witnesses, from high-ranking church officials to Tom Cruise and John Travolta, whom Berry wants to interrogate regarding their "alleged psychotic breaks" while studying Advanced Technology materials. RTC attorney Todd Blakely has blasted Berry's insinuations about Hubbard's writings and their celebrity adherents as "hearsay, conjecture and vitriolic slanders."
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."
Church officials have challenged the autopsy results as well as news reports suggesting that McPherson was planning to leave the church; they insist she chose to be in "seclusion" and died of a staph infection. Three church members sought for questioning by Clearwater police have reportedly left the country. McPherson's parents recently filed a lawsuit against the Church of Scientology, accusing the group of allowing their daughter to lie in a coma for days without nourishment or water; a church attorney has denied the allegations.
FACTNet makes passing mention of the McPherson case in a contentious "briefing" posted on its Web site a couple of weeks ago, but it's been largely overlooked in the swirl of speculation and recrimination about her death found elsewhere on the Internet. Wollersheim and Lerma promise they will be putting up more Scientology-related materials soon. Whether or not the organization's voice in the cyber-debate will ever again achieve the kind of molten rage and defiance it reached two summers ago will depend on the outcome of the case before Judge Kane. At present, FACTNet has no liability insurance to safeguard its directors' actions.
"We're uninsurable," Wollersheim says. "That's one of our damage claims.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.