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October 10, 1995 , New York, Long Island

The Net:
Or 'Free Press'
By Thomas Maier

ARNALDO LERMA believes the Internet newsgroups are like the Liberty Trees of the American Revolution - a place where citizens can post anything of interest. Suffice to say, the Church of Scientology doesn't quite agree.

Earlier this year, Lerma sent sacred religious scriptures from the church out over the Net. Lerma quickly heard back from those who, like himself, are worried about what they say are Scientology's cult-like methods.

"I got 160 pieces of e-mail saying they admired my courage and two pieces of mail from angry Scientologists," recalls Lerma, a 44-year-old audio-video technician in Arlington, Va. But the strongest response came from the Church of Scientology itself. Claiming that all of the material is copyrighted, and thus protected from being reproduced in other formats, the church filed a lawsuit in August against Lerma, convincing a federal judge to authorize a search of his home.

The church, which was founded in 1954 by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, says it wants to prevent further spread on the Internet of its privately held sacred texts - texts which members are charged at least $20,000 to see. Lerrna's computer was confiscated and 58 disks seized by federal marshals

The ongoing case against Lerma is one of three federal lawsuits filed in the past year by the church against former members who placed portions of its scripture an the Internet - disputes which may hold long-term implications for the future of the Internet, according to legal experts.

At the heart of the lawsuits, they say, is a struggle over what can be freely transmitted over the thousands of newsgroups and several major online services of the Internet. Basically, in these and related cases, it comes down to whether Internet providers should be treated like the tele phone company - as mere transmitters of information - or as publishers who can be held legally liable for what goes out on their service.

Free speech advocates say the Scientology lawsuits are designed to censor discussion on the Internet, opening up "netizens" to costly lawsuits over content, and taking away much of its unfettered appeal. Scientology officials, meanwhile, say the former members they've sued have improperly taken their secrets and are intent on ruining their reputation.

"The threat of litigation is enough to shut up a lot of people," argues Shari Steele, an attorney far the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group specializing in Internet issues. She expressed strong concern that the companies which provided Internet bulletin boards in two of the cases have been named as defendants for the alleged copyright infringement. If the church's lawsuits prevail, Steele said, future providers of bulletin boards and newsgroups on the WorldWide Web, as well as the companies running such subscriber services as Prodigy, Compuserve, and America Online might be forced to monitor or restrict information simply because they fear being sued.

"If system operators are Iiable for the content of the postings, it will lead to censorship," says Steele. "It would change the whole idea of how the Internet develops - it's that important." A church spokesman, however, argues that such restrictions may not be such a bad idea. "These documents are religious scriptures and we hold them very dear," says Leisa Goodman, a spokeswoman for the church. "The lawless on the Internet feel the law doesn't apply to them in cyberspace."

In court papers, Scientology lawyers say the teachings of its founder are protected by copyright law and cannot be used without the church's permission. The documents put on the lnternet deal with a number of "secrets," including advancement within the church, how to discredit critics, and how to communicate with plants, trees and zoo animals.

Scientologists believe that technology can expand the mind and help solve human problems; as Hubbard's much publicized writings outline. Those who join the church pay substantial sums of money and undergo higher-level spiritual training to gain access to the church's private unpublished documents.

To counter the anti-Scientology chatter on the Internet, the church has started its own "home page" on the World Wide Web. Additionally, a great deal of online discussion on both sides of the legal battle in cyberspace can be found in a newsgroup on the internet called Alt.Religion.Scientology (ARS). You can find an archive of documents about the dispute at this address (

"A criminal clique of apostates came by the materials unlawfully," Scientology officials say on their electronic posting ( "If they were allowed to succeed, their aim would be the destruction of the spiritual future for every Scientologist - and indeed every man, woman, and child - on earth." Although none of the cases are expected to be settled soon, recent preliminary rulings have limited what Scientology's lawyers can do with their seizures of computer equipment.

Two weeks ago in the Lerma case, for instance, U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema ruled that the search of Lerma's home by Scientology's lawyers went far beyond what she had okayed. The judge said she meant only for searches under keywords such as "Scientology" and "Hubbard." But her decision that much of Lerma's computer materials be returned is being appealed, still preventing Lerma from getting his disks back.

Likewise, the federal judge in a case brought against Dennis Erlich, a California man who was once a high-level church official, decided a week ago that his computer disks must be returned and that he be allowed to transmit information from Scientology's teachings under `fair use' provisions. (This would allow him to quote portions of the text in his commentary, but not the entire text, says Erlich's lawyer, Carla Oakley).

But Erlich, who has since lost his job as a photo lab manager, says the seizure of more than 360 computer disks and 29 books from his home already has done enough damage to his life. "Potentially they copied all my personal correspondence, mailing lists, financial records and personal notes," Erlich complained on the Internet. "Anyone who has sent me anything in confidence must assume that it has been compromised.""My computers and files were raided." said Erlich, 48, who was a church member from 1968 until 1982. "It was like being raped."

Both Erlich and Lerma have publicly labeled Scientology as a "cult" that depends heavily on mind-control and other questionable methods.

The Church of Scientology is known for not taking such criticism lightly. It filed a $416 million libel lawsuit against Time magazine for a 1991 article entitled "Scientology: The Cult of Greed." The church also recently filed a lawsuit against The Washington Post for allegedly quoting from the private religious texts in a story about the Lerma case. Goodman, whose "home page" on the Web is adorned with her photo, says it's designed to answer some of the criticisms and provide basic information about Scientology. Each day, she says, the Scientology page averages 600 "hits" - that is, Internet browsers looking in. Goodman calls the ARS newsgroup a "hate forum" for opponents of Scientology.

"The Internet certainly is not immune to the treachery of a small but insidious number of people who have furnished the Internet with a dark side: privacy invasions, lawlessness, intolerance and theft," the church warns on its home page. "The Internet offers them a new and unique way to hide from discovery and work their frauds and subterfuges from the safe harbor of anonymity."

Aside from Scientologists, many other groups are concerned with the wide-open aspect of the Net, and issues of copyright, libel, defamation and trade-secret violations. The legal rights surrounding what goes out on a computer bulletin board or Web site are still far from clear. In a case in June,' State Supreme Court Justice Stuart Ain in Mineola ruled that Prodigy could be held liable for allegedly defamatory statements on Prodigy made against Stratton Oakmont Inc. The judge said the computer bulletin board run by Prodigy could be considered as a "publisher" of the posting, rather than just a distributor.

In the past two years, courts have tended to favor free speech on the Internet. For instance, a federal judge in New York ruled in 1994 that CompuServ, one of the best known online services, could not be sued for alleged defamatory statements made on one of its forums called "Rumorville, USA" aimed at journalists.

Last year in Florida, Playboy Enterprises won a lawsuit against a local bulletin board service operator for unauthorized use of Playboy's copyrighted photos. The local operator, George Frena, said he used only a small portion of photos to promote his bulletin board and it was covered under the "fair use" provision of existing law. But the judge ruled Frena used the photos for a money-making enterprise rather than any journalistic purpose. "The court is not implying that people do not read the articles in [Playboy]," the judge ruled. "However, a major factor in [Playboy's] success is the photographs."

The overheated reaction to the dispute has overwhelmed the once-quiet Alt.Religion.Scientology news- group on the Internet, according to those who follow it. Some of the discussion reflects the wild-and-wooly conversations of the Net at its best and worst.-

"We must NEVER let the Church penetrate the ARS Central Committee," warns one anonymous writer, a self described former church member. Scientology's penchant for secrecy was compared with the Vatican in another online dialogue among several Net users, including two named Maureen and Henry:

Maureen: The Vatican was afraid that Galileo's ideas would harm believers who heard them. By the way, within the last year the Vatican apologized to Galileo. Will scientology be apologizing to Arnie Lerma and Dennis Erlich in the year 2500?

Henry: If the Vatican has secret papers, unlike scientology, they're not so pathetically mindless and stupid that they get spammed all over the net. Only losers get their secret papers spammed all over the net . . .

Scott Goehring, who created the ARS newsgroup in 1991 as a Purdue University undergraduate (partly to show his girlfriend what Scientologists are like), says he's amazed at the ferocity of the debate.

"The volume in the past month is more than we had in the whole first year," says Goehring, 26, who now lives in Bloomington, Ind. "I don't read everything, but I looked at it daily. If I don't, I feel that I'll miss something."

----- related :
alt.scientology.war - Dec 1995 Wired Magazine"
Scientology's war against its critics and the Truth - Washington Post Dec 1994
Scientology's Funny Photos Jan 4, 2000 Reliable Source Column, The Washington Post ( Known as The Man with no Head ]
CNN on the Lerma Raid 1995
American Jurist Magazine - 1995 Scientology's War upon its Critics
Skeptics Society 1995
Hush-Hush Money - westworld - About the 9-12 million for silence
Hunting Rabbits, Serving Spam The Net Under Seige - Westword - 1995
Church in Cyberspace Its Sacred Writ Is on the Net. Its Lawyers Are on the Case. August 19, 1995 - The Lerma Raid - Washington Post
Scientology's Expensive Wisdom now comes free - NY Times 1995 - No Epidemic has been reported
Arnie Lerma and others on Radio Shows and Fox News Oreilly and othershere

Pasadena Weekly - Debunking Scientology 2005 - Arnie Lerma quoted

Link to South Park Episode based on the materials Arnie Lerma was sued for in 1995 HERE ( 30 Megs WMF)

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