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Unfair Game 

Scientologists get their man

Wednesday, Jun 20 2001
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It was 2:15 p.m. when Keith Henson and his friend Gregg Hagglund finished picking up contact-lens solution and shaving lotion at a suburban Toronto mall and climbed into their car. Before they could fasten their seat belts, two unmarked vans squealed up, pinning their Mazda economy sedan in from the rear and the passenger side. A handful of emergency-services task-force officers -- Canada‘s version of a police SWAT team -- spilled out, wearing body armor and carrying submachine guns. As shoppers hurried into the nearby mall food-court entrance, Hagglund found himself staring down the barrel of a Glock pistol. ”You could stick your fist down one of those things,“ he recalled.

When the May 29 takedown was over, Henson, a Palo Alto computer consultant, was in custody at the ”super-maximum-security“ Metro West Detention Centre on a Canadian immigration warrant. The warrant was based on Henson’s April 26 criminal conviction in Hemet, California. And what was the Internet activist‘s crime? Espionage, perhaps? Terrorism? Henson was found guilty of a single misdemeanor count of interfering with a religion. To those familiar with a ferocious five-year war between the church and its Internet critics, it comes as no surprise that the religion was Scientology.

Earlier this month, Henson was freed, pending a hearing on his application for political asylum in Canada. Henson, who says he did no more than post nasty Usenet messages and picket Scientology locations, claims the church set him up. He may go down in history as the first person to file an international human-rights claim over a misdemeanor conviction. The case is likely to raise questions of how far a religion can go to protect itself from dissidents, and of free speech on the Net. And if Henson has his way, it will probe whether Scientology has reverted, in the words of a St. Petersburg, Florida, Times editorial, to historic practices of ”spend[ing] virtually unlimited time and money on pursuing, setting up and bringing down its critics.“

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”We may get involved,“ said Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an Internet civil-liberties organization. ”There’s a general concern that Scientology was out to get Keith Henson.“

Henson, a graying, bespectacled, 58-year-old grandfather, seems an unlikely candidate for international fugitive on the run. A self-proclaimed ”small-l libertarian,“ he is known in the Net community as a founding member of the L5 Society, advocating space colonization. Another cause to which he has lent his not-inconsiderable zeal is cryonics, the practice of freezing diseased human bodies in the hope of saving them with future medical cures. In short, he‘s a not-atypical Netizen, brilliant, maybe, eccentric, yes, but thoroughly nonviolent, associates say.

”He’s certainly been interested in fringe areas of science, but I don‘t think any of those are harmful areas,“ said John Gilmore, an EFF founder who has done business with Henson. ”He’s an ordinary guy who got in the face of Scientology.“

How Henson, who is neither a former church member nor a relative of one, became embroiled with the controversial religion calls for some explanation. Skeptics, who have long questioned whether Scientology is a religion or a business, congregated on alt.religion.scientology (ARS), a lively but not exactly headline-grabbing Usenet group. In 1995, Scientology tried to shut the site down. The retrospectively ill-advised attempt was followed by denial-of-service and ”sporging“ (forgery and spoofing) attacks, which raised the hackles of the hardcore Net community. A new generation of anti-Scientology activists was born. Alt.religion.scientology now is one of the most popular Usenet groups.

”Scientology‘s action had the psychological effect you would have seen of a gang of thugs riding into a Midwestern town and burning down the newspapers,“ Henson said.

Henson began contributing to ARS, then graduated to posting top-secret Scientology ”sacred texts“ on the Net. The dissemination of ”scriptures“ such as the story of Xenu, a galactic overlord who supposedly solved an intergalactic overpopulation problem 75 million years ago by space-transporting excess beings to Earth and blowing them up with hydrogen bombs, is a sore point for Scientology. The church not only fears scaring off new recruits; sales of the texts are a moneymaker. The church went so far as to surreptitiously install censorware on members’ computers, blocking sites likely to post texts. Scientology has also waged a legal campaign against the postings.

When Henson posted the so-called NOTs 34 advanced training manual on the Net, Scientology sued him for copyright infringement. The church won a $75,000 judgment, forcing Henson into bankruptcy. Being nothing if not persistent, Henson also began picketing Scientology facilities nationwide, including the church‘s film-production compound outside Hemet. The razor-wire-enclosed spread, called Golden Era Productions, occupies 500 acres along Gilman Hot Springs Road. Inside its faux--English castle--inspired building, workers produce an array of videotape programs, radio and television addresses, and Sunday services for the church. Other projects include restoring recordings of L. Ron’s 3,000 90-minute lectures, producing posters, fliers, magazines and books, and translating materials into 16 languages.

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