Judge Appoints Computer Expert in Scientology Case
DENVER (AP) _ A judge backed down on his threat Tuesday to hold the Church of Scientology in contempt for refusing to return computer materials to two men who have been attacking the church on the Internet.
Instead, U.S. District Judge John Kane appointed a special master _ University of Colorado computer science professor Gary Nutt _ to determine just what happened to the computer equipment.
Larry Wollersheim and Robert Penny _ former Scientologists who have accused church members of engaging in mind-control _ have struggled to get their computer bulletin board operating again since the church had the equipment seized by court order in August.
Last month, Kane ordered the church to return all the seized material intact or risk being held in contempt. He also ordered Wollersheim and Penny to stop transmitting what the church considers trademark secrets until he decides whether the documents are protected by law.
In deciding not to hold the church in contempt, the judge noted that the order authorizing the seizure of the material instructed that it be placed in the custody of the church’s attorneys, but the marshals returned it to the church itself. So the judge reasoned he wouldn’t hold the church responsible for the return of the material.
``For this reason, my order did not involve any First Amendment issue concerning the free exercise of religion nor can (the church) be held in contempt for violating that order,″ he wrote.
Scientology, a religion founded 41 years ago by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, requires initiates to undergo teaching and counseling that can cost thousands of dollars.
Church members were infuriated when Wollersheim and Penny and other former Scientologists posted some of the information on the Internet, making it available for free to millions of people around the world.
After Scientology lawyers obtained a court order, federal marshals confiscated computer disk drives, floppy disks, tape drives and CD-ROMs on Aug. 22 and turned them over to the church.
Since then, Wollersheim and Penny have struggled to get the materials back. On Sept. 15, Kane ordered the return of the materials, and they were handed over Sept. 25.
However, Wollersheim and Penny said they were given two replacement computer disk drives and replacement floppy disks with much of the material deleted. A seized CD-ROM was not returned at all.
At a court hearing Monday, Wollersheim also said he was unable to operate his computer with the replacement hard drive he was given.
But church lawyer Earle Cooley told the court it would be sacrilege to return sacred, stolen documents to the church’s attackers.
Kane ordered Nutt to examine the original computer materials and the copies the church made and ``take all measures necessary to determine if they have been modified in any manner.″
In a separate case on Aug. 12, the church had marshals seize computer equipment from Arnaldo Lerma of Arlington, Va. He also was slapped with a restraining order barring him from revealing more copyrighted documents.
Like Wollersheim and Penny, Lerma, 44, had been posting court documents alleging wrongdoing by the church, as well as some of Scientology’s most sacred texts, on international computer bulletin boards.
Lerma’s postings also described alleged abuse by former Scientology officials and details of the path to theological growth that the church says will transform people into near-gods.
The church also went after The Washington Post, alleging that the newspaper violated copyright and trade secret laws. But a federal judge ruled on Aug. 30 that the Post could retain a copy of the church’s texts for use in its reporting, saying newsgathering rights outweighed the church’s claims.