The Church of Scientology: Copyright vs. Free Speech
Abstract: In 1995, the Church of Scientology sued a number of parties, including the Washington Post, in an attempt to prevent the circulation of secret documents about the “religion.” This paper examines both sides of this issue, explores the implications to copyright law and the First Amendment, and describes the actual results of the case.
The Church of Scientology is a global organization with over 270 churches or missions worldwide. For decades, it has possessed followers with an almost fanatical devotion to their leader, L. Ron Hubbard. Since the advent of the Internet, the Church has begun to resort to various legal actions to maintain the secrecy of their “scriptures.”
On August 4, 1995, Arnaldo Lerma received a fax from a lawyer representing the Church of Scientology. This letter demanded that he remove from his webpage certain “Advanced Technology materials” from the Church. In the letter, the Church claimed both copyright and trade secret protection for the materials . The next day, Lerma received an unannounced visit from two members of the Church who wanted to express their “concern” over the materials he posted. In response to this, Lerma sent a reply to the Scientologists’ lawyer and claimed that the materials he posted were affidavits taken from the public record, and so were not subject to copyright or trade secret protection. He also informed the law firm that he had sent a copy of the disputed materials along with a tape recording of the Scientologists’ visit to a reporter from the Washington Post .
On the morning of August 12, 1995, Arnie Lerma’s house was raided by lawyers of the Church of Scientology two armed Federal Marshals. According to posts on the newsgroup alt.religion.scientology from that morning, the lawyers were seeking “material legally obtained from the Federal Courthouse in Los Angeles … in which the upper level material, the secret, sacrid [sic] scriptures of the Cult, are revealed” . The raid garnered media attention the next day; a Washington Post article quoted Lerma as saying that the cult seized “400 computer disks, four computer hard drives, a computer and
a scanner” .
On August 22, the Church of Scientology issued a press release announcing that they had sued the Washington Post for the return of the documents sent to them by Arnie Lerma. In the release, spokeswoman Leisa Goodman claimed that the Post “violated fundamental journalistic integrity by conspiring with lawless elements on the Internet to harm the religion of Scientology” . The next day, an attorney for the paper responded by saying that “the documents at issue, which have been widely distributed over the Internet, were properly obtained by The Post from a public court file, a common and appropriate form of news-gathering. And the limited quotations included in The Post's story are well within the bounds of 'fair use' doctrine under copyright...