The Church of Scientology vs. Arnie Lerma, Digital Gateway Systems, and the Washington Post

This page created by Ron Newman.
Last revised on Tuesday, October 15, 1996; a few links updated on March 23, 1997.

LATEST NEWS: Judge Brinkema finally issues her written opinion!

On October 4, 1996, Judge Leonie Brinkema issued her long-awaited opinion in the case of RTC vs. Lerma. She decided that Lerma had violated Scientology's copyrights 5 times, and awarded CoS's Religious Technology Center (RTC) the minimum statutory damages -- $500 per violation, for a total of $2500. Skip forward for more information.

Arnie posts the "Fishman Papers" to the Net

In early August, 1995, Arnie Lerma posted the Fishman Papers-- a set of documents which are part of the public record of a Federal court case in Los Angeles. These papers included copies of Scientology's secret "Operating Thetan scriptures". The Church alleges that these are copyrighted trade secrets, but they were nevertheless available to the public from court records until recently.

Arnie gets a fax and a visit from the Church

On August 4, 1995, Lerma received a fax from Scientology lawyer Melvin Jager. The next day, two agents of Scientology's Office of Special Affairs (OSA) visited Lerma in a futile attempt to persuade him not to post these documents again. Subsequently, Lerma sent a reply to Jager, asserting his right to post public records to the Net. He also sent a petition to the Los Angeles federal court asking that court to confirm his right to do so.

August 12, 1995: Arnie is raided

On Saturday, August 12 at 9:30 in the morning, Scientology lawyers Helena Kobrin and Earle Cooley, along with federal marshals and computer technicians, invaded Lerma's house in Arlington, Virginia, seizing all of his computer equipment and disks. In addition to suing Lerma, the church also sued his Internet service provider, Digital Gateway Systems ( of Vienna, Virginia. The Church issued a press release that same day, attempting to justify its actions. Digital Gateway Systems issued two statements the following week, one from the company's president, the other from its vice-president. The FACTnet bulletin board service issued its own press release three days later in support of Lerma; the following week, FACTnet itself was raided.

The media coverage begins

The Lerma raid received extensive media coverage. An Associated Press article appeared in Sunday newspapers throughout the United States the next day. The Washington Post published a news article on August 13 and a long Style section cover feature on August 19. The New York Times printed a news article on August 14 and a Sunday Week in Review piece the following week. The raid also received attention in the Phoenix (Arizona) Gazette and in two important British newspapers, the Guardian and the Independent.

Ten days after the Lerma raid, Scientology carried out similar raids on the homes of FACTnet directors Bob Penny and Larry Wollersheim. (See my FACTnet page for more details.) The three raids collectively got the attention of both ABC News and the Cable News Network (CNN).

The Church overreaches: suing the Washington Post

In the most bizarre development yet, Scientology sued the Washington Post on August 22, 1995, claiming that the Post and two of its reporters conspired with Lerma and "lawless elements on the Internet" to harm the Church. Here is the Church's press release announcing this lawsuit, and here's the Post's own article about the suit, published August 23, 1995.

The first court hearing

A preliminary hearing on the suits against Lerma and the Washington Post was held on Friday, August 25, 1995. Judge Leonie Brinkema, who issued the original writ of seizure, ordered the Church not to search Lerma's disk any further and not to alter its contents. Shelley Thomson of the e-zine **Biased Journalism** provided this report on the hearing. On August 30, Judge Brinkema issued an opinion denying Scientology's request for a preliminary injunction against the Washington Post, stating that Scientology's lawsuit against the Post was unlikely to succeed on the merits. She also ruled that the "Operating Thetan" materials did not constitute "trade secrets", and that the Post could make "fair use" of them. Here's the Post's own article on the judge's decision, and here's a report from **Biased Journalism**.

The second hearing

A second hearing was held in Judge Brinkema's court on September 15, 1995, in which the judge refused Scientology's request for a preliminary injunction against Lerma, and ordered Scientology to return everything they had seized from Lerma. (Here's a link to Judge Brinkema's order.) Patrick Jost took notes and wrote this sketchy report on that hearing. He later expanded the report somewhat for issue #3 of **Biased Journalism**. The Washington Post reported the story in its September 16, 1995 edition.

Judge Brinkema's November decisions

Judge Brinkema dismissed the suit against the Washington Post and its reporters in a written opinion on November 28, 1995. The judge called the lawsuit "reprehensible" and said its purpose was "the stifling of criticism and dissent of the religious practices of Scientology and the destruction of its opponents." She also ordered Scientology to pay the Post's attorneys' fees, and dismissed Scientology's claim that the disputed materials are "trade secrets". The Post published an article about the decision the following day.

The following day, November 29, Brinkema issued another opinion reaffirming her order that Scientology return everything they have seized from Lerma. In this memorandum, Brinkema compares Lerma to a publisher and says the Internet "is rapidly evolving into both a universal newspaper and public forum." She also (in a separate order) threw out the entire trade-secret part of Scientology's case against Lerma, leaving only the copyright claim in force.

In mid-December, 1995, the Commercial Internet eXchange (CIX), an association of Internet service providers, filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of Lerma's ISP, Digital Gateway Systems. (See also CIX's summary of the litigation issues.) The brief is now moot, however, because Digital Gateway Systems reached an out-of-court settlement with the Church.

Summary judgment against Arnie: January 1996

On January 19, 1996, Judge Brinkema surprised many observers by issuing a summary judgment aginst Arnie Lerma on the Church's copyright claims. (She had previously dismissed the Church's trade-secret claims.) It appears that the judge considered Lerma's postings to go beyond the bounds of "fair use" under the copyright law. Because of this summary judgment, the jury trial originally scheduled for January 29 did not take place. Here's a transcript of the January 19 hearing, which includes Brinkema's oral decision delivered from the bench.

The judge made this decision despite Lerma's own motion for a summary judgment against the Church, supported by a well-researched memo laying out grounds for that motion from Lerma's lawyers at Faegre & Benson. In that memo, Lerma's attorneys assert that the Church of Scientology had conducted an improper search through the seized computer files, misused the results of that search, altered Lerma's hard disk, "misused its copyrights", and committed a "fraud on the court". Brinkema was apparently more convinced by the Scientology lawyers' own motion for summary judgment, and accompanying memorandum.

The judge's decision led to stories in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Associated Press (AP), as well as another news item on Cable News Network. (CNN had a web page on the decision for a few days, but it seems to have been taken down.)

Arnie Lerma filed a last-ditch motion on August 22, 1996, asking that Judge Brinkema stay the proceedings and reopen the case. But the judge rejected this motion, stating that her written opinion would be issued imminently.

The judge's decision finally arrives: October 1996

Over eight months after issuing her summary judgment against Lerma, Judge Brinkema finally released her written opinion in the case on October 4, 1996. The decision is a slap on the wrist to Lerma, finding that he had committed just 5 copyright violations (many fewer than Scientology had originally alleged), and fining him $500 for each one, for a total judgment of $2500.

Scientology was not happy that Judge Brinkema summarized some of the "secret" documents in her written opinion, and succesfully petitioned another judge to have Judge Brinkema's decision sealed. By that time, however, it was too late; Shelley Thomson had published it in her e-zine **Biased Journalism**, and copies of it are now available on Internet sites throughout the world. Scientology's lawyer Helena Kobrin's foolish attempts to bully Shelley and others into removing the decision from the Internet backfired; Shelley responded by publishing Helena's letter in the following issue of **BJ**.

Other sources of information on the Lerma case

Several other web pages have more information on this case:

Earlier harassment of Lerma

This was not the first time Lerma came to the attention of either the Church or the news media. In November 1994, Lerma had received another threatening fax and an unannounced visit from the OSA, leading to articles in both the Washington Post(Christmas Day, 1994) and the Associated Press (January 3, 1995)..

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Ron Newman, <>