by Charles W. Hall
SCIENTOLOGY REINED IN
Church may Have to Return Computer Files
by Charles W. Hall
Arnaldo Lerma, the Arlington man who took on the Church of
Scientology by putting its texts on the Internet, won a partial
victory yesterday when a federal judge in Alexandria ordered that
the church return 58 computer disks that it seized from him.
U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema also verbally slapped
Scientology lawyers, saying their handling of Lerma's files went
far beyond what she had authorized as part of a suit alleging
copyright and trade secrecy violations.
"This case is somewhat out of control, and I need to get it under
control," said Brinkema. "It was not the court's intention to give
wholesale license to go through Mr. Lerma's possessions willy-nilly".
But within hours, a judge for the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals
granted the church a temporary stay, preventing Lerma from receiving
the disks until Brinkema's written opinion can be reviewed.
Brinkema's ruling was the latest twist in a case that has pitted
numerous conflicting rights - copyright protection, freedom of
speech and religious expression - in the age of the Internet, when
documents can be distributed worldwide with the push of a button.
Brinkema authorized the unusual Aug. 12 search of Lerma's home,
conducted by the U.S. Marshals Service, after church lawyers said
they needed to block further spread of the texts, which they described
as sacred materials to be seen only by advanced church members.
Brinkema said yesterday that she had meant for the search to be "narrow",
saying the church was allowed to examine only files with any of three
key words, including "Scientology" and "Hubbard" - for L. Ron Hubbard,
the late science fiction author who founded the church.
Yesterday, Lerma's layers charged that Scientology searched computer
files without regard to whether they were covered by Brinkema's rule.
"This is a dirty search, your honor,", said Lerma's lawyer, Michael D.
Sullivan. "They went through e-mail after e-mail. This is an egregious
violation of my client's Fourth Amendment rights. [Scientology] must
be banned from using the material they seized in this case".
Earl Cooley, a lawyer for the church, defended the church. "There
was no effort to intrude beyong the materials we were concerned
about," said Cooley. "But it's impossible to sterilize a search and
then be certain you've gotten everything."
The church, which has a long history of suing critics of news pubications
that print negative stories, also is suing The Washington Post to prevent
the use of copyrighted materials in stories about Scientology.
The Post obtained church texts from a federal court file in Los Angeles
and printed excerpts in a story about the Lerma case.
Brinkema said yesterday that The Post's excerpts appeared to be
protected by the "fair use" doctrine, which allows some quotation
of copyrighted materials to discuss public issues. But she said it
was less clear that the doctrine would protect Lerma, who put
much longer passages onto the Internet.
Brinkema's ruling was the second defeat in court this week for
Scientology. On Tuesday, a federal judge in Denver ordered the church
to return computers and files seized from two Scientology critics in
Lerma said yesterday that he had no idea his transmission of the church
text would cause such a legal blowup, and expressed cautious
"It's progress. You want to to say I'm happy?" said Lerma. "I can't
jump up and down, because we're dealing with mad dogs".