The Washington Post "STYLE" Section. Saturday, August 19, 1995. Pages C1 and C5.
Church in Cyberspace
Its Sacred Writ Is on the Net
Its Lawyers Are on the Case
By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
It was 9:30 and Arnie Lerma was lounging in his living room in Arlington,
drinking his Saturday morning coffee, hanging. Suddenly, a knock at the
door-- who could it be at this hour?-- and boom, before he could force
anything out of his mouth, they were pouring into the house: federal
marshals, lawyers, computer technicians, cameramen.
They stayed for three hours last Saturday. They inventoried and
confiscated everything Lerma cherished> his computer, every disk in the
place, his client list, his phone numbers. and then they left.
"I'm one of these guys who keeps everything - my whole life - on
the computer," Lerma says. "And now they have it all."
"They" are lawyers for the Church of Scientology, the
controversial group that Lerma once considered his home, his rock, his
future. Now they call him a criminal, accusing him of divulging trade
secrets and violating copyrights.
Founded in 1954 by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard,
Scientology has grown into a worldwide organization that has been
recognized as a religion by the Internal Revenue Service but has been
called a cult by the German government. The church claims membership of
more than 8 million; its critics say the figure is dramatically lower.
Lerma spent nearly 10 years in Scientology. But that was almost
two decades ago. Since then, he's lived in Virginia, designing sound and
video systems for nightclubs and other clients.
It was only in the past year or so that Sciento-
logy and Arnie Lerma have gotten reaquainted, and this time Lerma has a
different view of the church: he considers it a dangerous cult, a corrupt
organization dedicated to brainwashing its followers.
To convince others of this view, Lerma used his facility with
computers to distribute some of Scientology's most sacred texts,
documents he says were obtained from a public court file in Los Angeles.
In recent months, Lerma and others have placed dozens of these documents
on the Internet, in a discussion group called alt.religion.scientology, a
busy place in cyberspace where Scientology critics and adherents gather
to trade arguments, insults and threats.
"I thought it essential that the public know this, so people can
make an informed decision when some kid on a street corner asks you,
'Would you care to take a free personality analysis?'" Lerma says.
For a long time, the church treated its Internet critics as
bothersome pests, sometimes answering their critiques, sometimes ignoring
them. But in the past week Scientology has revved up its awesome legal
machinery, launching a fierce campaign to protect its most closely
A federal judge ordered the raid on Lerma's house after the
church filed a lawsuit accusing Lerma of copyright infringement and
revealing trade secrets. Church officials also paid a surprise visit to
the home of a Washington Post reporter that Saturday evening, seeking the
return of documents Lerma had sent him. And in Los Angeles, the church
has persuaded a judge to seal the court file containing the disputed
Arnie Lerma was lost without his computer. He resorted to
jotting everything on legal pads. Finally this week, he got a new
laptop. And then a sympathetic stranger mailed him a modem. But Lerma,
44, is deeply shaken. Tears drip down his cheeks at the slightest
provocation. He descends into deep, barking sobs and cannot understand
He believes the church will try to harass him until he is
silent. But he says that will not happen. On the Internet, Lerma signs
his postings "Arnaldo Lerma, Clear 3502, Ex-Sea Organization Slave."
It's a reference to his old Scientology code name and his status as a
mostly unpaid church staffer. And then he writes: "I would prefer to die
speaking my mind than to live fearing to speak."
Except that when he recites the line, Lerma cannot get it out
without collapsing into spasms of sorrow.
'Ruin Him Utterly'
From the documents Lerma posted on the Internet, as oft-quoted
Hubbard directive on litigation against unauthorized use of the church's
"The purpose of the suit is to harass and discourage rather than
to win. The law can be used very easily to harass and enough harassment
on somebody sho is simply on the thin edge anyway, well knowing that he
is not authorized, will generally be sufficient to cause his professional
decease. If possible, of course, ruin him utterly."[Italics in original]
The church has long been quick to use the legal system against
government investigators, ex-members turned critics, and news
organizations that publish criticism of Scientology. At one point a few
years ago, it had 71 active lawsuits against the IRS alone. In 1992 the
church filed a $416 million libel suit - still pending - against Time
magazine, which had published a cover story titled "Scientology: The Cult
of Greed." Earlier this year in California it filed suit against - and
confiscated computer disks belonging to - another former member whom it
accused of distributing copyrighted texts. And in the past year, the
church has spent millions of dollars on an advertising blitz accusing the
German government of a "hate campaign against Scientology."
A Scientology document filed in the Los Angeles case advises
church members to discourage news reports on Scientology anywhere but in
religion pages, and to "be very alert to sue for slander at the slightest
chance so as to discourage the public presses from mentioning Scientology."
'Free Speech vs. Copyright'
The Church of Scientology says the Lerma case is a simple matter
of trade secrets and copyright violations. The church's unpublished,
copyrighted texts - previously available only to church members who have
paid thousands of dollars to rise through Sicentology's hierarchy of
training courses - have been placed on the Internet, open to all.
This, Scientology lawyers argue, threatens the church's
intellectual property rights.
"Of course we want Scientology to go as far and wide as
possible," says Kurt Weiland, director of the Church of Scientology
International. "There are 60 books written by the founder. There is one
small section, the upper-level materials, which are trade secrets based
on our religion understanding. A person has to have advanced in an
orderly fashiohn, spiritually, in order to understand its content.
"We are determined to maintain their confidentiality. We take
very forceful and elaborate steps to maintain the confidentiality. This
is not a free-speech issue. It's a copyright issue."
Scientology, which runs a celebrity outreach program and counts
among its members John Travolta, Tom Cruise and Lisa Marie
Presley-Jackson, offers to help people attain a near-god state through
several levels of training sessions. At the upper levels, church
doctrine reads like a science fiction plot.
The church believs that 75 million years ago, the leader of the
Calactic Federation, Xenu, solved an overpopulation problem by freexzing
the excsess people in a compound of alcohol and glycol and transporting
them by spaceship to Teegeeack - which we know as Earth. There they were
chaiined to a volcano and exploded by hydrogen bombs. The soulds of
those dead - "body thetans" - are the root of most human misery to this day.
Much of Scientology's upper-level training consists of
re-creations of that galactic genocide. Weiland says most church members
pay up to $20,000 to reach the final stages of training. Critics
estimate the total cost at closer to $300,000.
It is the texts of those training sessions - known as "Operating
Thetan" or "OT" courses - that the church now seeks to keep secret.
In the lawsuit against Lerma, court documents unsealed Wednesday
in U.S. District Court in Alexandria contain 30 color photographs showing
how Scientology protects its sacred scriptures. Members ready to learn
the material obtain magnetized photo ID cards and sign agreements to keep
the information confidential. To see th material, they scan their ID
cards to walk through two sanitized white doors, and security guards
unlock the scriptures from cabinets where they are wired in place. Then
guards escort the members to a room where they are locked in and
monitored on video cameras.
But despite the church's precautions, the OT documents hae been
in a public court file for two years, ever since they were submitted in
Los Angeles by Steven Fishman, a former Scientologist who was quoted in
the Time magazine article in 1991 and subsequently was sued by the church
for libel. The suit was dropped last year, but for more than a year,
federal court clerks say, eight people have served as a rotating guard,
arriving each morning at the L.A. courthouse to check out five volumes of
the Fishman case file and keep them all day.
"They get here when the door opens at 8:30 - they come very day,
faithfully," says Tyrone Lawson, exhibit custodian for the U.S. District
Court clerk's office. "They never miss a day. It's like they don't want
anyone to read it."
On Monday, after a Washington Post staffer asked the clerk for
the file, one of the men challenged the clerk's right to take it to copy
it, according to Joe Nunez, another official in the clerk's office.
"He came at me [saying], 'Oh do you have the right to take this
away?'" Nunez says.
When the Post staffer approached two of the men Tuesday, they
would not say for whom they worked. "We're just helping out," one said.
"It's not public," the other claimed when the staffer asked to look at
Weiland confirms that the people in the clerk's office were
Scientology employees. "We took elaborate steps to assure that no one
made copies of our copyrighted material," he says. "We actually had
people there." Weiland says the only copies ever made from the court
file were those made for the Washington Post Staffer.
After learning that the Post had received the documents,
Scientology lawyers renewed their efforts to seal the file in the Fishman
case. Federal Judge Harold Hupp had denied previous Scientology motions
to seal the material, but the church won a temporary sealing of the file
pending the judge's decision.
But that may not change anything, says Los Angeles lawyer Graham
Berry, who represented Fishman's co-defendant, psychologist Uwe Geertz,
in the libel case. "Now that it's all on the Internet, the genie is out
of the bottle, and no amount of pushing and shoving by the Church of
Scientology will put it back in."
Copyright lawyers say Scientology does not lose its copyright on
the scared texts simply because they are filed in court. "The Church of
Scientology is correct," says Ilene Gotts, a partner in the Washington
office of Foley and Lardner who specializes in intellectual property
law. "The mere fact that you file something in the public domain does
not get rid of its copyright protection."
Gotts says any citizen has the right to go to a courthouse and
read anything in the files. But making photocopies of copyrighted
materials could get you in trouble, as warning signs in many libraries,
for example, make clear. And putting those documents on the Internet can
further muddy the waters, Gotts says.
"That's something courts grapple with every day," she says. "A
short passage for educational purposes is one thing, but if you're
talking about 60, 80 pages, that defense is not going to work."
Clusters and Prep-Checks
If the court clerk's daily visitors made it difficult for
citizens to see the public file, some copies of the documents nonetheless
got out. Lerm says several former Scientologists passed the copies among
themselves and then gave them to him; he then used a scanner to put them
onto the Internet. Lerma also put the copies in an envelope and sent
them to Richard Leiby, a Washington Post reporter who has written
frequently about Scientology.
On the evening after the raid on Lerma's house, church lawyer
Helena Kobrin and Scientology exectutive Warren McShane arrived
unannounced at Leiby's home and demanded all copies he might have of the
Weiland says Scientology representatives went to Leiby's home
"because Arnie Lerma gave stolen materials to Richard Leiby to hide."
Lerma says he sent the papers to the reporter in search of publicity.
This week, at Lerma's request, The Post returned the papers.
Meanwhile, the Post staffer in Los Angeles got copies of the
documents from the court file.
Most of the 103 pages of disputed texts from the Fishman file
are instructions for leaders of the OT training sessions. They are
written in the dense jargon of the church: "If you do OT IV and he's
still in his head, all is not lost, you have other actions you can
take. Clusters, Prep-Checks, failed to exteriorise directions."
Scientology's jargon is often similar to the self-actualization
lingo used by self-help groups that emerged from California in the 1960s
and '70s. Like est and Lifespring, it includes concentration exercises
in which trainees sharpen their pereceptive abilities by focusing deeply
on objects or people around them. In one high-level OT session, trainees
are asked to pick an object, "wrap an energy beam around it" and pull
themselves toward the object. Another instructs the trainee to "be in
the following places - the room, the sky, the moon, the sun."
Many excerpts from Scientology texts have been published in news
accounts over the past 20 years. What appears to be new in the Fishman
documents is a 1980 "Confidential Student Briefing" on OT-VIII. The
church calls the four-page briefing a fake. Purportedly written by
Hubbard, who died in 1986, it tells the story of the church founder's
"mission here on Earth," and warns that "virtually all religions of any
significance on this planet" are designed to "bring about the eventual
enslavement of mankind." It also states that "The historic Jeus was not
nearly the sainted figure [he] has been made out to be. In addition to
being a lover of young boys and men, he was given to uncontrollabel
bursts of temper and hatred."
Ultimately, the briefing says Hubbard will return to Earth "not
as a religious leader but a political one. That happens to be the
requisite beingness for the task at hand. I will not be known to most of
you, by activites misunderstood by many, yet along with your constant
effort in the theta band I will effectively postpone and then halt a
series of events designed to make happy slaves of us all."
The text concludes, "L. Ron Hubbard, Founder." But Scientology
director Weiland says it is "a complete forgery."
Genie Out of the Bottle
Forgery or the real thing, the doucments are out there. The
Internet newsgroups where the Scientology texts have been posted are
among the most popular in cyberspace, and a recent brouhaha over the
erausre of Internet messages has drawn new readers.
"I'm a computer scientist, and I knew nothing about Scientology
until all this started happening," says Dick Cleek, a professor of
geography and computer science at the University of Wisconsin Center in
West Bend who believes Scientologists are behind the erasures. "This is
about the ability of people to speak out. It's as if every letter you
sent saying "Vote Republican" got removed from the mails...
"Every time they cancel one message, three more people post the
documents," says Cleek, who is also a member of the Ad Hoc Committee
Against Internet Censorship, a group of academics, computer users and
Scientology critics who want law enforcement authorities to investigate
the erased messages. "In the past, the church has harassed individuals
who dared to criticize them. Now they've attacked the Internet, and they
get people like me involved."
The church says it has never removed any messages from the
Internet. "There are thousands of messages there about Scientology,"
says Weiland. "Those people were critical and obscene and we never did a
thing about it."
Weiland says people who post messages about Scientology are "just
a bunch of people of low moral standards. They don't have a life. It's
really only a handful of of people, maybe 15 or 20 guys who just post,
post, post, and they just get high on each other's verbiage."
Despite the church's claim to copyright protection of its
documents, Scientology will be hard-pressed to eliminate distribution of
information already zipping around the world on the computer network,
says Gotts. "The beauty and the beast of the Internet is that
information gets out immediately," the lawyer says. The church could win
every court battle, yet still find its sacred texts flying across phone
lines from Bethesda to Beijing.
Which would suit Arnie Lerma just fine. His goal is to dissuade
young people from joining Scientology by revealing the church's
philosophy to be empty and corrupt.
Lerma - who says he left the church after leaders forced him out
of a budding romance with a daughter of the church founder - an agry and
sad man. He says Scientology took advantage of him as a boy of 16,
luring him into a life of virtual slavery, housing him in cold
dormitories with insufficient food. "They prey on the naive with stars
in their eyes. I just wanted to save the world."
Weiland says Lerma left because "Scientology has certain ethical
standards. And Arnie Lerma was not able to live up to these standards
and therefore decided to leave. There were probelms with honesty."
"Ultimately," Weiland says, "his motivation is money." The
director adds that Lerma never asked Scientology for money. "Not yet," he
Lerma contends he has violated no copyright, and intended only to
distibute portions of the court file, "a public court record that I had a
public duty to make available because they were keeping it a secret."
Lerma is a man given to causes. For years, he sought solutions
through Scientology. More recently, he because intensely active in Ross
Perot's abortive presidential campaign. Then he dived into efforts to
unmaks what he calls Perot's "terrible misdeeds." Now he has turned to
Scientology once more.
Or, rather, against it. He says he does not seek revenge, only
justice. He says that after he left the church, he went through a
post-traumatic stress reaction, then through denial and, finally, a
Lerma lights up another Marlboro. He says he's smoking too much
now. Every time the phone rings, he jumps off the couch, Every time
there's a knock at the door, he glances around the room.
Suddenly, he recalls the moment in 1977 when he called his mother
in Georgetown and asked her to take him away from Scientology. "I said,
'Mom, I want to come home now and see if I can make life make some sense,
because it surely doesn't right now.'"
And now, 18 years later, as Lerma says those words once more, he
rolls over on his couch, drops his cigarette, and sobs until he laughs.
Special Correspondent Kathryn Wexler in Los Angeles and staff writer Lan
Nguyen in Alexandria contributed to this report.
With a large picture of Arnie Lerma holding a cable in a room
which apparently was his computer area. Now it only has a printer.
Caption: "Arnie Lerma holds the plug to his computer, confiscated by the
Church of Scientology after he posted copyrighted documents on the
Internet. 'We take very forceful and elaborate steps to maintain the
confidentiality," says one Scientology official.
With a small picture of a cross and the word SCIENTOLOGY.
With a head shot of Kurt Weiland, caption:
"Scientology's Kurt Weiland: 'There are thousands of messages [on the
Net] about Scientology. Those people were critical and obscene and we
never did a thing about it."