Longform

Nightmare on the Net

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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."

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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