The Church of Scientology vs. Dennis Erlich, Tom Klemesrud and Netcom

This page created by Ron Newman.
Last revised Saturday, January 20, 1996. Some links corrected on March 23. 1997.

Dennis Erlich was a minister of the Church of Scientology for over 15 years. He's now one of its most active critics, especially on the Internet. Erlich was the first of four ex-Scientologists who had their houses raided and their property seized by agents of the Church during 1995. (To read about the other three, go to my FACTnet page and my Arnie Lerma page).

Church lawyer threatens Erlich: August and December 1994

In August of 1994, shortly after he arrived on the Net, Dennis Erlich received a letter from Scientology attorney Thomas Small. The letter accused Erlich of violating the Church's copyrights and "trade secrets" in his postings to the Usenet newsgroup alt.religion.scientology. The letter demanded that Erlich "remove the offending material from the Internet and agree to refrain from any repetition of your acts in the future."

Erlich replied that his postings made fair use of Scientology writings for the purpose of criticism and satire, and challenged the Church to prove that it held valid copyrights on the material that he had posted.

Things were quiet for a nearly three months after that, but on December 28, 1994, Dennis received e-mail signed by Church attorney Thomas Small, but sent from the Netcom account of Helana [sic] Kobrin. The e-mail announced that legal action would be taken against not just Erlich, but also "all of those who have participated with you or contributed to your infringements. This includes those who provide the systems and services through which your postings are made."

Erlich e-mailed Kobrin a short reply demanding that she stop sending him "unsubstantiated, harassing threats".

The following day, Erlich reported that two representatives of the Church accosted him in the street outside his house in Glendale, California, attempting to engage him in a conversation about his "postings on Internet". Erlich told them to go away.

Another lawyer goes after Erlich's BBS: December-January 1994-95

The same day they wrote to Erilch, lawyers for the Church of Scientology also sent a letter to Netcom, a service provider which provides Internet connections to small bulletin board systems (BBS's) such as the one Dennis Erlich was using, Tom Klemesrud's

Two days later, on December 30, 1994, Helena Kobrin telephoned Tom Klemesrud to complain about Erlich's Usenet postings. Klemesrud told Kobrin not to call him again, said he considered the phone call to be harassment, and hung up on her. A few hours later, Klemesrud received e-mail from Helena Kobrin, demanding that Klemesrud either stop Erlich from posting copyrighted Church materials, or else cut off Erlich's access to Klemesrud's BBS. Klemesrud replied to Kobrin a few hours later, asking that Kobrin provide written proof that the materials are actually copyrighted, including actual copies of the writings in question. Klemesrud likened his situation to that of a news dealer or bookstore. Kobrin sent Klemesrud more e-mail on January 1, and Klemesrud Klemesrud replied the next day, asking Kobrin to try obtaining a court order from a Los Angeles judge.

On January 5, Helena Kobrin wrote again to Netcom, demanding that Netcom cut off Internet access to Tom Klemesrud's BBS. Netcom refused.

The lawsuit and the raid: February 1995

On February 8, 1995, two Church of Scientology corporations filed a lawsuit and a request for a restraining order against Dennis Erlich of Glendale, California, alleging that he was posting the Church's "copyrighted trade secrets". They also sued the bulletin board he was using, Tom Klemesrud's, and the bulletin board's Internet service provider, Netcom. Two days later, they received a temporary restraining order against the three defendants, as well as a writ of seizure allowing them to search Erlich's home and seize computer files.

Erlich did not know about any of this until 7:30 in the morning of Monday, February 13, 1995, when Church attorney Thomas Small and seven other people demanded entry to his home. According to Erlich, they spent over six hours copying and deleting files from his computer system. A Glendale police officer was present at the beginning and end of the raid, but not at any other time.

Dennis posted a first-person account of the raid to Usenet that night. The following day, both the Glendale News-Press and the Los Angeles Times reported on the raid. Church lawyer Helena Kobrin (remember her?) posted her version of the story to Usenet as well. (This link also includes two responses from David Sternlight and Jon Noring.) In addition, the Glendale News-Press published an editorial supporting free expression on the Internet on February 21, which drew a reply from a Church spokeswoman in the same newspaper three days later. Toronto's ultra-net-savvy weekly newspaper eye published a good article in their February 23 issue.

The first court hearing: February 21, 1995

A court hearing was held on Tuesday, Febrauary 21 in San Jose Federal District Court. Dennis made a statement to the court. Tom Klemesrud, the owner and operator of, also made a statement. Netcom's vice-president of software engineering, Rich Francis, filed a statement as well, as did Netcom's lawyers. At this hearing, the judge lifted the restraining orders against and Netcom, and modified the restraining order against Dennis.

I won't go into the details of the hearing on this page; instead, read the official court transcript, or the first-person accounts by Shelley Thomson, Alan Hacker, and Carl Kaun, as well as the February 22 newspaper articles in the Glendale News-Press, Los Angeles Times, and San Jose Mercury News. The Church also issued a post-hearing press release.

After the hearing, the Electronic Frontier Foundation issued a February 23 edition of its newsletter EFFector Online, containing a substantial addition to its original statement about the Church's threats to the Net.

Subsequent motions and declarations: Spring 1995

On February 27, Helena Kobrin wrote a letter to Judge Whyte claiming that Dennis Erlich had violated the amended restraining order the previous day. Erlich sent an apology to the Judge that same day, explaining that he had not yet received the amended restraining order before allegedly violating it. (Apparently it was delivered to the wrong address.) That was not good enough for the Church lawyers, who promptly filed two more motions, one seeking a contempt-of-court citation against Erlich, the other requesting an injunction against Netcom and

In support of this request, the Church submitted declarations by church lawyers Helena Kobrin and Andrew Wilson, an unidentified person named Lynn Farny, and three computer specialists: Internet service provider David Elrod, digital image processing expert Kenneth Castleman, and UCLA computer science professor Alfonso Cardenas. The Church also filed an amended complaint with the court on March 3rd.

The San Francisco Chronicle belatedly covered the story on March 2nd, as did the Philadelphia Inquirer on April 1st. The Glendale News-Press published yet another article on March 3rd, and the UK weekly trade magazine Computing published a brief article in the March 9th edition. Meanwhile, the Net's own Shelley Thomson devoted the second issue of her new net-'zine, **Biased Journalism**, to the Erlich case.

In March 1995, Dennis Erlich obtained pro bono legal representation from the San Francisco law firm of Morrison and Foerester ("MoFo"). Because of their good work, Judge Whyte cancelled a March 17 hearing which was to hear a motion to hold Dennis in contempt of court. Instead, the judge issued an order delaying all pending hearings until further notice. (Dennis reported this news to Usenet in two messages on March 15 and March 16.)

The second hearing: June 23, 1995

A second court hearing was held on Friday, June 23 at the San Jose Federal Courthouse. This hearing considered a number of motions from all parties in the dispute, including Helena's motion to hold Dennis in contempt, Helena's motion for an injunction against all three defendants, and Tom and Netcom's motion to dismiss them from the case. Dennis described the motions in this "preview", written a few days before the hearing. Brian Harmon attended the hearing and wrote this description of what he saw. (Dennis later sent several replies, which I've intercut into Brian's text.) You can now read the full transcript of the hearing if you wish. The San Francisco Chronicle covered the story in its June 24 edition.

Judge Whyte's rulings: September and November 1995

Nearly two months after the last hearing, Judge Whyte finally issued a ruling on September 25. The judge ordered Scientology to return all property seized from Erlich in the February 13 raid, and dismissed Scientology's claim that Erlich had violated their trade secrets. The ruling is a mixed blessing, because it also holds that some of Erlich's postings were not "fair use" under the Copyright Act.

On November 21, 1995, Judge Whyte issued another ruling refusing to dismiss the case against Netcom and Tom Klemesrud, but subtanstially narrowing the grounds for the lawsuit. The next step was a case management conference on January 19, 1996. Both Netcom and Scientology issued press releases claiming the decision as a victory for their sides. The decision attracted lots of press coverage: San Jose Mercury (two articles, 11/27/95 and 11/29/95), San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Reuters, Wall Street Journal, and Cable News Network all ran stories on November 27 or 28, 1995. In December 1995, Judge Whyte's decision was the subject of articles in two local newspapers for lawyers, the Los Angeles Daily Journal and the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. Shari Steele, staff counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, made it a subject of her New York Times Op-Ed column on December 9; a longer version of her article appared in EFF's newsletter EFFector Online.

The Dennis Erlich Defense Fund

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has established the Dennis Erlich Defense Fund for people who want to help Dennis cover the "hard costs" of his legal defense. Follow this link for more information. You may now contribute to the Fund by bank wire transfer as well as by check.

Lady Ada's alt.religion.scientology T-shirt is once again available! All profits from the sale of these shirts will go to the Defense Fund. (If you ordered one of these last year and live in the US, you should have received it by now. If you live in Europe, it's on its way to you now.)

Some more media coverage

The British Broadcasting Corporation covered the Erlich case in its first edition of "the Net" TV show on May 15, 1995. They've put a transcript of the show on the Web. National Public Radio also devoted a long segment of "All Things Considered" to this case on June 13; here's an excerpt from the transcript of that show. Boardwatch magazine has devoted several articles to the case. That magazine's editor, Jack Rickard, wrote a blistering reply to a letter from the Church's spokeswoman Leisa Goodman in the July 1995 issue.

If you'd like to see the Church's point of view on all this, take a look at their special I nternet issue of Freedom magazine, a slick propaganda rag put out by their Office of Special Affairs. You may especially want to read the article entitled "A Crime By Any Other Name", which calls Dennis Erlich a "Copyright Terrorist".

Follow this link for an index of all legal papers that the Electronic Frontier Foundation has received electronic copies of.

Other harassment of Erlich

Dennis's ex-wife Rosa continues to harass him with claims that he owes $40,000 in child-support payments. Dennis claims that he's been denied the right to visit the child. Here's a link to Dennis's latest postings on this subject. Dennis suspects that the Scientologists may have "bought" Dennis's alleged debt from Rosa in order to collect it.

A member of the Church's Office of Special Affairs, Andrew Milne, posted a message claiming that a Scientologist named Robert Lippman "has obtained a restraining order against Dennis Erlich over Erlich's threat to kill him at the 1992 Cult Awareness Network conference." Erlich says he's never been served with any such order and has never met or heard of Lippman.

Dennis also continues to experience petty harassment of various kinds, as reported in this message of June 3.

Return to The Church of Scientology vs. the Net main page.

Ron Newman <>