Lawrence Wollersheim's hands shake as he reads his notes, ticking off the damage done to his computers. Surrounding the 46-year-old Boulder resident is a cluster of reporters and, beyond that, a ring of glowering, dark-suited men (and one woman wearing a clerical collar), all packed into a hallway of the federal courthouse in downtown Denver. Drifting from the larger ring into the smaller one is the dapper, silver-haired Reverend Heber Jentzsch, president of the Church of Scientology International.
"It will take us months to repair the damage," Wollersheim says.
"Larry, don't lie like this," Jentzsch says, moving closer.
"The databases are so corrupted, we can't even defend ourselves," Wollersheim says.
"Totally false," Jentzsch snaps, now nose-to-nose with Wollersheim.
"Will you get out of my face?" Wollersheim bellows. "I'm talking here."
"You are the criminal who stole from us," Jentzsch thunders back. "A thief will scream very loudly."
Attorneys break up the confrontation before it can get any uglier. Call it a draw, this latest round between Wollersheim and the Church of Scientology, the far-flung religious empire founded by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard.
A practicing Scientologist for most of the Seventies, since 1980 Wollersheim has been locked in legal battles with the Church, which he claims used coercive tactics to keep him in the fold and then harassed him and destroyed his business. In 1986 a jury awarded him $30 million in damages against the Church's California branch for "infliction of emotional injury." The award was reduced to $2.5 million on appeal; he has yet to collect. The trial judge found that the California church transferred "virtually all of its assets" to other entities before the trial began; Wollersheim says his attorneys are still trying to "pierce the corporate veil" in the Golden State.
But these days Wollersheim has more to worry about than his uncollected judgment. "Imagine if someone was mad at you," he says, "and went to a judge and [accused you of] stealing something and went through all your personal belongings--your personal records, journals, all that stuff. And took it. The court didn't take it. Your worst enemy took it. And they're going to come after you with it. Well, that's what happened here."
Six weeks ago a team of Church representatives and computer experts, escorted by federal marshals, raided Wollersheim's apartment and the Niwot home of Robert Penny, another ex-Scientologist. The group seized several computers, hundreds of diskettes and thousands of pages of documents--effectively pulling the plug on the Fight Against Coercive Tactics Network (FACTNet), a nonprofit computer archive and bulletin-board system Wollersheim and Penny launched three years ago to disseminate information on Scientology and other cult-like "new religions."
The raid, ordered by federal judge Lewis Babcock, had been triggered by Church complaints that FACTNet was violating copyright and trade-secret laws. At issue are the secret, upper-level scriptures of Scientology, which members of the Church pay dearly to see--anywhere from $20,000 to nearly $300,000 in training and counseling sessions, according to some ex-members. Church officials claim that Wollersheim and Penny obtained stolen copies of its "Advanced Technology" materials and conspired with other "lawless elements" in cyberspace to post excerpts of the documents on the Internet.
Wollersheim, who disputes the legitimacy of the Advanced Technology copyrights, insists he obtained the materials legally and never placed them on the Internet. The real reason for the raid, he says, was to rummage through confidential FACTNet files and to put his archive out of business.
"They want to drive us under," he says. "They know we're on the edge, and if they keep the equipment away from us for a few weeks, we can't get to our mailing lists to talk to our donors, and we can't pay our bills."
Three weeks after the raid, in a startling turnabout from Judge Babcock's earlier order, Judge John Kane ruled in favor of FACTNet, denying the Church's efforts to obtain a preliminary injunction against the operation and ordering all of Wollersheim's and Penny's equipment returned. The two men got their computers back last week, but they're hardly celebrating; two of the computer hard drives had been replaced with new ones that had all the disputed documents deleted.
FACTNet attorney Tom Kelley immediately filed a motion to have the Church found in contempt of Kane's order. Wollersheim says he's most concerned about the encrypted files on the hard drives that are still in the Church's possession--files having to do with Scientologists or ex-Scientologists who committed suicide, he says, as well as the identity and location of high-level "defectors" from the Church. "If they crack the encryption, we'll have to assess the damage and start contacting people," he sighs.
California-based Church attorney Helena Kobrin denies any Scientology effort to crack confidential files. "We went to great pains not to alter anything on the original drives so they could be maintained as evidence of what was seized," she says. Church officials argue that they shouldn't have to return the Advanced Technology documents, since to do so would violate a religious belief that the scriptures "cannot be surrendered to apostates."
But the underlying issues in the case extend far beyond the fate of five computers and a few gigabytes of data. The FACTNet raid is part of a larger pattern of lawsuits, computer seizures, threats, attacks and counterattacks--what amounts to an online battle royal over Scientology's secrets, complete with allegations of espionage, sabotage and forgery--that has been heating up the Internet for months.
Most of the combatants tend to be allies of Scientology or its most virulent critics. But others have become embroiled in the controversy, too, from skittish Internet access providers and vengeful hackers to befuddled judges--who are being asked to apply traditional laws concerning copyright and fair use to a medium in which one user can instantly "publish" hundreds of pages of material for thousands of other users around the globe, to be browsed, copied, edited or ridiculed at will.
Pitting claims of religious rights and copyright protection against claims of free speech, the brawl seems made for the Internet. Discussion of the case is spilling over from the frenetic Scientology "newsgroup" (an electronic-mail discussion area) to other forums dealing with "Net abuse," censorship and related issues. For the first time, many users lured to online services by the promise of a global village of chat and commerce are discovering the dark side of the screen--an arcane and disturbing world of Cancelbunnies and strategic spammers, free-zoners and dead agents (see related story, previous page).
Kobrin, who has fired off e-mail legal warnings to people who have cited as few as six lines of Hubbard's copyrighted, unpublished works on the Internet, says the dispute has nothing to do with free speech. "There are those out there who are trying to make this into `The Church is trying to stop its critics,'" she notes. "We've filed three lawsuits. If we were going after critics, we'd have many more lawsuits than that. We're going after strictly intellectual property violations."
Wollersheim, though, sees the case as a kind of referendum on the future of the Internet. "Scientology has put the first heavy footprint on the Internet, and this case is going to determine who else will speak out in the social advocacy groups," he says. "If Scientology is able to stomp on us and remove us, the whole capabilities of the Net come into question."
Founded in 1954 in Los Angeles, the Church of Scientology now claims a worldwide membership of 8 million people, including such high-profile parishioners as John Travolta, Tom Cruise, Kirstie Alley, Nancy Cartwright (the voice of Bart Simpson) and at least one member of Congress--Sonny Bono of Palm Springs. Detractors estimate membership to be much lower, but whatever the actual numbers, Scientology has managed to survive decades of media exposes, civil suits and one major criminal proceeding. In the early 1980s eleven top Church officials, including Hubbard's wife, Mary Sue, were convicted of plotting break-ins, wiretaps and other crimes to thwart government probes of the group; the Church claims it has since cleaned house. After a mountain of litigation dating back to the 1960s, the Internal Revenue Service finally restored the Church's tax-exempt status in 1993, six years after Hubbard's death.
Anyone with a few bucks and a few hours to kill can embark on the road to Scientology by reading a copy of Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, Hubbard's best-selling manifesto, first published in 1950. After that, the process of rising through the spiritual ranks of Scientology becomes increasingly complex--and expensive.
At the most basic level, the Church's teachings involve undergoing a process of "auditing" with a polygraph-like device known as an E-meter in order to identify and conquer traumatic and inhibiting thoughts, known as engrams, and unlock human potential. Auditing sessions can cost up to $1,000 an hour, but the Church says the process eventually allows parishioners to "go clear," achieving a state of spiritual freedom known as Operating Thetan.
Scientology's upper-level teachings are less well-known. The Advanced Technology documents have to do with training the Operating Thetan to attain even higher levels of spiritual consciousness and to rid oneself of "body thetans," the spirits of aliens exiled to Earth 75 million years ago as a result of galactic war.
Church officials say they've gone to great lengths to safeguard the Advanced Tech-nology writings, which were authored by Hubbard beginning in the mid-1960s and released to the Church hierarchy (but never published) over a period of years. According to court filings, the materials are available "only to those who have attained the proper level of spiritual enlightenment," who must view them under tight security at one of seven churches around the world. Users must sign a confidentiality agreement specifying they won't divulge what they've learned. (Both Wollersheim and Penny apparently signed such agreements but contend that they are invalid.)
The only way the documents have ever left the possession of the Church, officials say, is through trickery or outright theft. In one infamous incident, two dissidents impersonating Scientology brass visited the Church's Copenhagen offices and walked out with the materials unchallenged.
But certain key details of Scientology's secrets have also found their way into the public record through other means, including news accounts and court filings by ex-members seeking damages from the Church. After hearings on the matter last month, Judge Kane concluded that the materials "have come into the public domain by numerous means" and could not be considered trade secrets under Colorado law.
"The stuff's been leaking out since 1968, when Hubbard first came up with it," says Robert V. Young, a former Scientology spokesman who testified on FACTNet's behalf.
Yet even when portions of the materials have surfaced in public records, the Church has moved swiftly to suppress them. A few years ago one of Wollersheim's attorneys was successful in having some of the documents entered in a court file in California, but hundreds of Scientologists mobbed the courthouse in an attempt to bar media access to the file. One Los Angeles Times reporter apparently beat the blockade before the judge sealed the records.
The Church was less successful in the case of Steven Fishman, an ex-member who'd been slapped with a libel suit (since dropped) for statements made to Time magazine alleging that Scientology officials had ordered him to kill his psychiatrist. In 1993 Fishman attached more than a hundred pages of exhibits, including Advanced Technology materials that he claimed to have purchased from another Scientologist, to an affidavit in his case; the affidavit has become known in anti-Scientology circles as "the Fishman papers."
Helena Kobrin describes Fishman as a "scam artist" who served time in federal prison "for mail fraud and also for obstruction of justice." At least part of the Fishman papers, two documents that claim to be "briefings" for Operating Thetan Level VIII, are forgeries, she says.
Placing Hubbard's secret writings in the court file didn't invalidate their copyright, but it did put the Advanced Technology at risk of exposure to outsiders. Despite attempts by Church attorneys to have them sealed by the court, the Fishman papers remained a matter of public record for two years--but were not easily accessible to the public. To protect its copyrighted materials, the Church sent members to take the court file out every day. "Those records have been very, very, very carefully guarded," Kobrin says.
Wollersheim suggests some dissidents may have obtained copies of the Fishman papers by mail order; instructions for ordering the documents from the court clerk surfaced on the Internet months ago. But Kobrin insists that Scientologists never let the file out of their sight until August 14 of this year, when a Washington Post reporter broke through the embargo in person and obtained a copy of the Fishman papers. The next day the judge in the case agreed to seal the file pending judicial review.
Even before the Post got its copy of the documents, though, the genie was out of the bottle--and onto the Internet.
Nobody can sue the Internet. The information it carries doesn't originate in one place, and no one party is responsible for transmitting it. But the global network is more than simply a cloud of electrons; despite all the cyberbunk that's been written about it, the Net is rapidly developing its own culture, identity--and legal problems.
Last February attorneys for two Scientology-related corporations obtained a search warrant and a restraining order against an ex-Scientology minister, Dennis Erlich, and seized computer equipment from his California home that was allegedly used to post Advanced Technology materials on the Internet. The Church also filed suit against Erlich, the operator of the bulletin board he was using and the board's service provider, Netcom.
Days earlier, police in Finland had visited a remailer--a service that allows computer users to post e-mail anonymously--and demanded the true identity of another alleged violator of Scientology's copyrights. The twin raids, along with threats of legal action directed at other system operators, soon touched off a firestorm of protest from tech-heads concerned about privacy, free speech, and the rights of third parties who were being dragged into the dispute.
In an open letter to the Church of Scientology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that advocates civil liberties in cyberspace, protested that most online service providers are "small operators who cannot afford protracted litigation, even if they are in the right. The mere threat of a lawsuit could result in some [administrators] refusing to carry all sorts of contentious newsgroups simply because they could not afford to put on a case to show that they could not be held responsible for another party's alleged wrong."
EFF attorney Shari Steele says her organization is also concerned about the broad scope of the search in the Erlich case and in the subsequent raids on FACTNet. "They can't just take everything," she says. "It's like seizing an entire file cabinet. That's clearly not acceptable under the Fourth Amendment. They need to identify what they're looking for, go through that file cabinet on the premises, and take the specific documents that are applicable...To go on a fishing expedition is not legally justifiable."
Peter Beruk, litigation manager for the Software Publishers Association, says raids on computer operators are becoming less common, even in criminal software-piracy investigations. "It's an option we use only when we feel that information is going to be destroyed," he says. "When we have done it, we've always limited ourselves to walking away with paper. If you can print out what's on the hard drive, why walk away with the whole computer?"
But the posting of Hubbard's teachings was no ordinary piracy case, and Scientology attorneys soon discovered that even walking away with entire computers couldn't stop the flow. In the first three days of August, the Fishman papers again surfaced on the Internet--this time courtesy of a Virginia audio-video technician named Arnaldo Lerma. An ex-Scientologist who had once been romantically linked with a daughter of L. Ron Hubbard's, Lerma was also a newly appointed member of FACTNet's board of directors.
According to Wollersheim, FACTNet had two sets of Advanced Technology documents--one obtained in his own lawsuit against the Church and another sent to him by a defense attorney in the Fishman case, in which he served as a consultant. And he had no intention of making either one accessible to users of his own archives, let alone the Internet.
"I've had that material since 1984," he says. "I could have given it out, posted it, published it, but I decided the wrath of these people wasn't worth it. Arnie was a new director--fifteen days on the job. He made the right decision at the wrong time."
Wollersheim says Lerma obtained his copy of the Fishman papers from some other source; in a deposition, Lerma stated he wasn't sure who sent it to him but he assumed it came from FACTNet. Regardless of the source, Lerma's decision to post the Fishman papers caused a sensation on the Net, particularly among those unfamiliar with the earlier postings.
All along, Church officials have contended that their opponents have infringed their copyrights in order to ridicule Scientology beliefs, cause the Church economic harm and desecrate Hubbard's message by taking it out of context. But Lerma and other dissenters have argued that it's precisely because of the claims of distortion that Hubbard's secret writing must be brought to light--that no summary or paraphrase of the upper-level teachings has quite the impact in a religious debate as the founder's own words.
At least some of what Lerma posted concerning the cosmology of "body thetans" had been reported before in some fashion. What seems to have stirred the most response from readers were disclosures concerning the intensive training routines for the Operating Thetan, including an exercise that involves attempting to communicate with plants and animals "until you know the communication is received and, if possible, returned." Even more controversial is a passage in the disputed Level VIII documents that debunks major religions as instruments of "enslavement" and depicts Jesus as "a lover of young boys and men...given to uncontrollable bursts of temper and hatred."
Although Church officials have emphatically denounced the OT VIII materials as fakes, Wollersheim insists they're legitimate. "Two sets of defectors, at different times in different parts of the world, came out with those documents," he says. "I've been working with defectors for fifteen years. I have never dealt with anyone as afraid of having their identity revealed as the people who came out and verified those documents."
Nine days after the materials went out on the Internet, federal marshals raided Lerma's home and seized his computers. Three days later--the same day the judge in California sealed the Fishman papers--Wollersheim and Penny issued a press release affirming their support of Lerma's actions and accusing the Church of trying to hack through FACTNet's security system and "place incriminating documents into our archives."
The lengthy screed went on to urge "volunteers" to "immediately begin putting up 100-1000 times more Fishman affidavit type public records on Scientology into world wide distribution on the Internet. Scientology needs to learn that attacking critics, illegal and immoral raids do not work any more."
If Wollersheim was trying to put a stop to the raids, he had a strange way of going about it. Kobrin says that the taunting press release, promising massive distribution of the Fishman papers, prompted Scientology's attorneys to move immediately against Wollersheim and Penny.
FACTNet had apparently prepared for such an eventuality. The organization carried a million-dollar insurance policy that is now funding the pair's defense. FACTNet required its users to sign elaborate disclaimers governing the use of its electronic library. And months before the raid, Wollersheim and Penny had each posted a "Search Warrant Special Notice" in their homes advising any law enforcement personnel of the presence of attorney-client-privileged materials on the premises. The advisory concluded: "Until you recontact the issuing judge relating this information, under no conditions are you to enter these premises without my or my attorney's presence or with any [off-duty] or nongovernment official!"
The Scientologists who raided Wollersheim's apartment read the notice carefully. So did the marshals. Then they pried off the lock to his bedroom door and took away his computers.
What happened to FACTNet's computers after the raids in Colorado and Virginia is still a matter of dispute. A federal judge in Virginia recently upbraided Scientology attorneys for exceeding the scope of her search order in the Lerma case by going through his computer files "willy-nilly."
In the Denver case, Scientology's computer experts claimed that their electronic search was focused on "principally religious terms which are unique to the scriptures of the Church" in order to locate infringing materials. But according to court documents, the search was soon expanded to include a host of keywords, including the names of prominent defectors from the Church, attorneys involved in civil litigation against the Church, the judge in Wollersheim's successful lawsuit, the e-mail pseudonyms of Church opponents such as "Capricorn" and "Rogue Agent"--even CAN, the acronym for the Cult Awareness Network.
Scientology attorneys say they took precautions to ensure that their clients didn't view privileged legal documents and that the search was a proper inquiry into copyright violations. "Any name that's on that list has had some connection to a wrongful use of those materials," Kobrin says.
FACTNet attorney Tom Kelley believes the search had another objective. "It's real obvious that this was an intelligence-gathering operation, not just a search for infringing material," he says.
On the heels of Judge Kane's ruling, denying Scientology's bid for a preliminary injunction and ordering the computers returned, Judge Lonnie Brinkema made a similar decision in the Lerma case. Last week a judge in California ordered that Dennis Erlich's computers be restored to him, too, even though his postings of copyrighted material were deemed too massive to qualify as fair use.
Wollersheim says he won't know the "damage" done to FACTNet until he gets his original hard drives back. His long struggle with the Church has clearly exacted a toll, financially and psychologically--last year he told a reporter he was $1 million in debt, excluding attorney fees--and may never be fully resolved. ("He is what he is," Kelley notes. "In some ways, he's never left the Church of Scientology.") Yet the FACTNet case extends beyond what Wollersheim calls "our pipsqueak operation."
Kane's ruling prohibits Wollersheim and Penny from making any copies of Advanced Technology materials or distributing them "other than in the context of fair use." But it may take the courts months to decide what constitutes fair use of Hubbard's unpublished but much-discussed writings. The existing copyright laws, last revised in 1976, weren't written with the Internet in mind. If posting a copyrighted document is a crime, what about browsing it? What about putting a link to it on your Web site, so that surfers can connect to another site in another country that contains the document?
Wollersheim notes that Lerma posted 63 pages of Church documents out of more than a thousand pages of such material. "Sixty-three pages--that's not even a hiccup on the Internet," he says. "We need to redefine fair use in the new cyberworld paradigm."
In the absence of new paradigms, the Fishman papers continue to roam the Net, with Scientology's lawyers in hot pursuit. Last month Scientologists and local police seized the equipment of an Internet provider in Amsterdam, after the provider refused to delete an anonymous remailer who was using the site to post the documents. Dutch outrage over the incident has spawned numerous other Web sites offering access to the documents, including one link on a Dutch legislator's home page. Some sites have removed the Fishman files at the Church's request, but at least one server in Beijing took them down because demand was so high that it was overwhelming the service.
Wollersheim says the Fishman papers "have now been translated, encrypted and hid just about anywhere you can imagine around the world. They can't stop them fast enough. They tried to put out a fire with matches and gasoline."
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He adds, "It's becoming a game for newbies. The first thing you learn when you get on the Internet is where to find the Fishman papers."
One place you won't find them is on FACTNet's new hard drives. But Wollersheim has a pretty good idea where to find the latest buzz on Scientology.
"Watch the Net," he says. "It works. It works.