The New York Times, Monday, August 14, 1995. (National edition: page A7.)

Dissidents Use Computer Network to Rile Scientology


ARLINGTON, Va, Aug.13 -- The Church of Scientology is battling a band of on-line dissidents who have used the Internet to mail out globally its secret scriptures, for which some members must pay thousands of dollars.

On Saturday, as a result of a copyright infringement lawsuit, United States marshals here seized the computer of a former church employee who had electronically posted a 136-page text that he said was available in court records.

The former employee, Arnaldo P. Lerma, 44, said many members had surrendered their life savings in return for the document, which contains instructions for progressing through levels of spirituality, or thetans. he said the text had been filed by a defendant in a case brought by the church in Federal District Court in Los Angeles.

"You have to jump through a lot of expensive hoops to get access to this," Mr. Lerma, a self-employed designer of electronic systems, said in an interview. "This is the big secret at the end of the rainbow, and you could go to the court clerk and get it for 50 cents a page. The INternet is the First Amendment in silicon."

After Mr. Lerma posted the text on July 31, the document quickly became available for copying on computers in Finland, Germany and elsewhere around the world. Demand for the document was so great in Beijing that on Thursday this notice appeared: "Demand for the Scientology documents was seriously affecting network access for the entire country. As the documents are now freely available at a multitude of other sites, access to our directory serves no further purpose, and it has been closed to the public."

According to Scientology literature, Scientology's goal is "to bring an individual to an understanding of himself and his life as a spiritual being." Global membership is said by the group to be eight million, though others put the figure as low as 50,000.

Mr. Lerma said the marshals carted away 400 computer disks and computer gear that he said was worth about $3,500. Mr. Lerma said he was told the machines would be returned on Monday, after any Scientology documents had been deleted. "They even took my mouse and my modem," he said.

The marshals were carrying out an order by Judge Leonie M. Brinkema of Federal District Court in Alexandria. The Religious Technology Center, which holds copyrights to the confidential texts of Scientology, sued Mr. Lerma in that court on Friday, accusing him of copyright infringement and trade secret misappropriation.

Helena K. Kobrin, a lawyer for the church, said: "If these documents left the church, it's because someone stole them. Mr. Lerma posted materials to the Internet which are copyrighted, unpublished, confidential material, and he had no permission to do that."

Mrs. Kobrin said the church had filed a similar suit in Federal court in San Jose, Calif., in February. She said that in that case, which is pending, a former member had distributed confidential and copyrighted material. Mrs. Kobrin said that after the man was sued, he posted 900 critical computer messages about the church in five months.

The lawyer said other suits could follow. "There are people out there who somehow think the Internet has created a new medium where all the rules go away, and it's not true," Mrs. Kobrin said. "Things happen faster on the Internet, and we're going to keep up."

The cases demonstrate the instant strength that the global computer network gives opponents of governments and religions. Mr. Lerma said the disputed document spread worldwide after he posted it in a topical message center, or newsgroup, startled by a critic of Scientology.

Scott C. Goehring, a 26-year-old college student in Bloomington, Ind., said he founded the newsgroup in 1991 as a forum for exposing Scientology. He said his wife's first husband was a Scientologist. "On the Net, the truth comes out," Mr. Goehring said. "The church can't shut everyone up. They can't sue all 100 million people on the Net."

Mr. Goehring said that of the people who leave material on the newsgroup several times weekly, three are Scientologists and about 100 are opponents. He said a monitoring service found that the newsgroup had 14,000 occasional readers.

Today, regulars on the newsgroup tapped out their outrage over the raid. One condemned the "Scientology Intelligence Organization," while another called for people to picket the group's offices worldwide. An Arnie Lerma Defense Fund was proposed. Someone else offered a computer: "We've already raised $400 in pledges to buy him a brand new Gateway Pentium with all the trimmings."

One fan of the newsgroup, Jeff Jacobsen, 40, a small-business manager in Scottsdale, Ariz., said by telephone: "A church that won't tell you what they teach until you pay them? Most religions are happy to have you spread their gospel far and wide."

A spokesman for the church, Alexander R. Jones, said a student minister would pay nothing for the texts, while some other members would pay thousands of dollars. "There is a fixed donation scheduled, but what a person needs depends on the person." he said.

The church, based in Los Angeles, was founded in 1954 by L. Ron Hubbard, a science fiction writer who died in 1986. The church has a paid staff of 13,000.

Mr. Jones said the church had several celebrity members, including Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of Elvis Presley, and the actors, John Travolta and Tom Cruise.

Mr. Lerma said he was a Scientology missionary and financial manager from 1968 until 1977. He said he came within 48 hours of eloping with a daughter of Mr. Hubbard before church officials scared him off. Mr. Jones said the church would have no response to that statement.

Mr. Lerma, who calls himself "a 21st-century blacksmith," said he used an optical scanner to enter the court filing into a computer.

Mr. Lerma said he tried to erase the material from his computer after receiving a warning letter from the church on Aug. 4. "I had 600 megabytes of stuff on there," he said. "To my knowledge, I deleted everything."

Shari Steele, legal services director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a not-for-profit group concerned with civil liberties issues and computers, said the case demonstrated the difficulty of enforcing copyright rules on the Internet. "Bullying and coming with warrants is overdoing it, but I'm not sure what the right answer is," she said.

The address of the Usenet newsgroup is "alt.religion.scientology."