SCIENTOLOGY LOSES ROUND IN ON-LINE CASE
By David Bank
Mercury News Staff Writer
A federal judge in San Jose declined Tuesday to hold an Internet
service provider and a computer bulletin board operator responsible
for electronic messages posted by one of their customers, setting back
an effort by officials of the Church of Scientology to silence one of
their most vocal critics.
The attempt by church officials to require Netcom On-Line
Communication Services and a Los Angeles bulletin board operator to
screen messages had alarmed cyberspace civil liberties advocates, who
feared it would chill the freewheeling discussion common on the
Internet's discussion forums.
``Any tactics that are designed to scare providers from carrying
information are private censorship, and that is just intolerable on
the networks,'' said Shari Steele, director of legal services at the
Electronic Frontier Foundation, a Washington advocacy group.
U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Whyte did extend a restraining order
against Dennis Erlich, a Glendale writer and former Scientology
minister who turned against the church after he left in 1982. Erlich
is a frequent contributor to the discussion forum
alt.religion.scientology on the Internet and has posted portions of
church publications and documents.
Participants in the discussion forum have accused church supporters of
attempting to delete messages critical of the church and even to have
the entire forum removed from the Internet. Church officials say they
only are seeking to protect copyright material and trade secrets.
In a separate action, church officials recently worked with Finnish
police to obtain the name of a contributor to the Internet discussion
who had posted his messages anonymously through a site in Finland that
is commonly used by those who wish to keep their identity secret.
Church officials said the individual had stolen church documents.
In its lawsuit against Erlich, Netcom and Tom Klemesrud, the bulletin
board operator, officials of two organizations affiliated with the
church claim that Erlich has copied copyright material and revealed
Some of the teachings could be damaging to those not yet ready to
receive them, said Warren McShane, president of the Religious
Technology Center, which holds the rights to the works of
Scientology's late founder, L. Ron Hubbard.
``If people want to read Mr. Hubbard, they should go and get his
authorized work,'' McShane said outside the courtroom. ``We asked
(Erlich) politely to stop (distributing the material), and he refused.
We'll do what we have to do to stop it.''
Last week, McShane and an attorney, armed with a court order from
Whyte and backed by off-duty police officers, raided Erlich's Glendale
home and seized six boxes of computer diskettes and 29 books and made
backup copies of the hard disks from Erlich's computers. McShane said
five people worked for four days to catalog the material.
Whyte asked attorneys for the church to detail the alleged copyright
and trade secret violations by Friday. He said he would decide what to
do with the seized items after Erlich responded on March 3.
``My concern is that some of this material is stuff that should not
have been seized,'' he said.
Erlich, 48, said he had collected the material in preparation for his
own lawsuit against the church. He said he had republished the
material on the Internet only for commentary, satire and advocacy --
activities he said were protected by the Constitution.
``I probed and prodded until they came out and showed what they
thought of free speech,'' said Erlich, who appeared in court without
``There's no way I can defend myself now because they deleted material
from my hard disk that I would have used to prove that I didn't do
what they said I did.''
Attorneys for the two church-affiliated organizations said computer
consultants had developed software to allow Netcom to monitor Erlich's
activities on-line and bar postings that might compromise copyrights
or trade secrets.
``They have been put on notice from Day 1,'' McShane said. ``They have
the responsibility to make sure nobody's rights are violated.''
The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Steele disagreed.
``That is not Netcom's responsibility,'' she said. ``They are not
policemen. They are service providers. That makes me very
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Published 2/22/95 in the San Jose Mercury News.
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