Silencing Scientology's Critics on the Internet: A Mission Impossible?

Article excerpt

In January of this year, 34 Hollywood celebrities, including Goldie Hawn, Dustin Hoffman, and Oliver Stone, signed an open letter to German Chancellor Helmet Kohl, likening his government's persecution of the Church of Scientology to Nazi persecution of the Jews in the 1930s. The letter ran in a full-page ad in several newspapers, including the International Herald Tribune. It was conceived by Bertram Fields, Tom Cruise's lawyer, after the youth wing of Kohl's Christian Democratic Union party called for a boycott of Mission Impossible, because Cruise, the movie's star, is a Scientologist.

Hostility toward Scientology is not new. The German government makes no secret of its opinion that the Church of Scientology is a dangerous organization. And, while the federal government of Germany has not taken any legislative action against the church, the State of Bavaria requires that all individuals seeking public service jobs declare whether they are Scientologists. For the fourth year in a row, the U.S. State Department has rebuked Germany for its treatment of Scientologists in its annual human fights report.

Boycotts and threats of censure are not foreign to the Church of Scientology. History shows, however, that it is often the church restricting access to its materials, rather than being on the receiving end of attempts to censor materials. In the United States, the church has recently asked courts for help in that sphere of battle--halting what they claim is illegal dissemination of their doctrines via the Internet.

There is an irony to the church's request for help. While every religion lays claims to a system of beliefs and the fight to put those beliefs into practice, most religions distinguish their belief systems through instruction and evangelization--and the courts have upheld their fight to do so. However, most religions have not put a price tag on their belief systems or tried to hold others liable for sharing ideas with non-believers. The Church of Scientology, however, has brought numerous lawsuits, most recently for dissemination of its texts via the Internet, for just those reasons and, in many instances, the courts have upheld their fights to classify their beliefs as proprietary material. Yet, serious questions remain on several issues: the separation of church and state, the idea that religious beliefs can be copyrighted and, the latest furor, the legality of dissemination of such materials through the technology of the Internet.

The Church of Scientology traditionally has attempted to silence its critics through defamation suits, but recently it has adopted a new tactic. Instead of using defamation, which is difficult for the church--an admitted public figure--to prove, it has learned to wage its battles using copyright law.(1) Copyright, unlike defamation, is a strict liability law. It requires no proof of actual malice or even knowledge of the infringement. For a claim of copyright infringement to be successful, the copyright holder is required to prove only ownership of copyright to the material in question and copying of the copyrighted work.(2) Defamation, on the other hand, requires the plaintiff to prove that the defendant knew a statement made about the plaintiff was false and published it anyway, either with actual malice or with reckless disregard for the truth. Defamation's stricter standard is based on the principle that debate on issues of public importance should be uninhibited.(3) Copyright has not been thought to need a strict standard of review to prevent it from interfering with the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech and press. This is because copyright is only intended to protect the way in which an idea is expressed, not the idea itself. The church's recent cyberspace battles, however, indicate its intention to guard the ideas themselves.

Since 1995, Religious Technology Center, the church's publishing arm, has filed four lawsuits alleging copyright infringement and trade secret misappropriation against Internet users and service providers. …