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Censorship Your Rights Online

Scientology Critic Flees U.S. Over Usenet Posts, Pickets 477

Keith Henson was arraigned on charges of "misdemeanor terrorism" last September. Last month the jury deadlocked on those charges, but convicted him of making threats to interfere with the constitutional privilege of enjoying religious freedom. He was not present at his sentencing hearing yesterday and is a fugitive from justice, apparently planning to claim asylum in Canada. If you've ever flamed anyone in an online forum, and think you have a right to carry a picket sign, you need to study this miscarriage of justice. Details below. Update by J : has been taken down, so I'm linking to a mirror.

"Religious bigotry will not be tolerated in Riverside County," was a Scientology spokesperson's reaction to the verdict.

That's basically the problem right there. The First Amendment gives me the right to be a bigot as long as I don't hurt or threaten anyone. You don't have to like my opinions, but you do have to tolerate them.

If you've ever hung out in an online forum, you'll probably get deja vu reading this Usenet thread. The first message posted is a description of cruising past some Scientology related buildings, complete with GPS coordinates for whatever reason. It's written as a self-mocking, satirical sendup of spy movies. The remainder of the thread is jokes in the same vein.

The question is whether this running gag about "Tom Cruise Missile Coordinates" (get it?) could be taken seriously enough to qualify as a threat under Section 11415 of the California Penal Code.

As I read the recently-passed law, if you go along with the jokes about the "handheld laser guidance system," you might be a terrorist:

Any person who knowingly threatens to use a weapon of mass destruction [including] by means of an electronic communication device, is to be taken as a threat, even if there is no intent of actually carrying it out ...

The fact that the person who allegedly violated this section did not actually possess a biological agent, toxin, or chemical weapon does not constitute a defense to the crime specified in this section.

The victim of said terrorism must have been in "sustained fear" of the threat being carried out. And how does the law know your victim was in sustained fear? Because he or she evacuated the building -- or took "any other action."

Here's what Henson says. In this case, the Scientology organization's legal team managed to bar any evidence from being presented about why Henson was picketing the Scientology location (because of two unusual deaths within a month).

Nor was the context of the above thread, or context of Henson's other Usenet posts, allowed to be introduced. For example, the jury could not see the context of the above thread; they only saw Henson's contribution to the running gag:

Modern weapons are accurate to a matter of a few tens of yards. The terminal guidence ones are good to single digits.

Of the next quote, the jury was only allowed to see the first sentence, not the second:

The only way I can get clear of this scientology mess is to "destroy them utterly." So: This week I will be back picketing gold base.

And you can decide what you think his third quote means, but again you have the advantage of its context being just a click away:

PPS Killing the organization off entirely is the best way to change the future of Scientology.

Worse still, according to Henson's at-the-time lawyer, whether these statements caused fear in some Scientologists was decided not by the statements he actually made, but by hearsay versions they got from others. He points out that Scientology's censorware package ("Scienositter") would have blocked the original Usenet posts anyway:

...cult members, who are not allowed access to the Internet and are actively prevented (by the Church of Scientology "net nanny") from reading the newsgroups on which Henson posts, may have an unreasonable and irrational fear based on unreasonable and out of context statements of which they were informed selectively, but which they did not read.

So picture Keith Henson's situation. He feels strongly about his particular cause. He peacefully carries a picket sign. He exercises his First Amendment right to post on Usenet about what he's doing and why -- and in so doing he uses sentences and phrases which, in context, clearly are not threats, but out of context could be construed that way.

Dragged into court, all context is stripped away and -- while he narrowly escapes conviction as a domestic terrorist -- he is convicted of using the threat of force against people who may never have actually read what he wrote.

If you're smart, you'll take Henson's case as a warning. You'll think about what your own statements would look like, with their context totally removed, and in the harsh spotlight of a courtroom. Do you really need to post that joke, or wouldn't the judge find it funny?

You'll soften up your opinions just a little, trying not to change what you mean while trying to change what you could be twisted to mean.

Maybe it's not such a great loss for you or me; we're not great writers anyway, and if we censor ourselves before hitting Save, maybe that's not the end of the world. We weren't really going to use that First Amendment right anyway, you know?

But somewhere out there is a Mark Twain who's had it up to here and is poised to pen a caustic attack on a religion which will become an important classic. As of yesterday, Mark's a bit more likely to live in Canada.

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Scientology Critic Leaves U.S. Over Usenet Posts

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I've got a bad feeling about this.