Longform

Nightmare on the Net

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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."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast