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[A]ll men have inalienable rights to think freely, to talk freely, to write freely their own opinions and to counter or utter or write upon the opinions of others.

—from the Creed of the Church of Scientology

On Sept. 15, a dozen lawyers and a judge spent the afternoon in federal court in Alexandria, debating the trade secrecy of the Church of Scientology’s most sacred texts. Even as U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema was hearing motions from the Church to prevent publication of the documents, the material was floating around on the Internet, there for the taking by anybody with an interest and a modem.

The Internet postings are digitized copies of pleadings that sat in an open court file in Los Angeles for two years. The information was once undeniably public, but the Church wants to stuff the cat back in the bag—and they don’t care who they have to sue to do it. In the case being heard locally, the Church is suing former Scientologist Arnoldo Lerma of Arlington for putting Church documents on the Internet, and also suing the Washington Post for quoting from those documents in the course of reporting its story about Lerma. One of the documents posted by Lerma quotes Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard as saying, “The purpose of the suit is to harass and discourage rather than win.”

The Church ostensibly sued the Post over the issue of trade secrecy, claiming that the paper’s quotes from Scientology’s tracts lessened the value of its course of religious education. The suit named reporter Marc Fisher, who wrote the story about Lerma on Aug. 18, and staff writer Richard Leiby, who wrote a story about Lerma on Christmas Day, 1994. Court filings indicate Leiby was named because Lerma mailed him the Scientology documents, although the Post obtained its own copy from an open court file. The Post used the documents in a very limited way, leaving some to suggest that the suit is a backhanded attempt to restrain criticism while restricting two of the paper’s better reporters from covering Scientology because they are now part of the court case.

Scientology, which claims to have 8 million members worldwide, was founded by science-fiction writer Hubbard in 1945, and received tax-exempt status in 1993 after decades of battling the IRS. The Church’s creation myth encompasses suspended animation, volcanoes, UFOs, and a prehistoric holocaust. The Religious Technology Center, which holds the trademarks for the Church, has been engaged in a frenzied, coast-to-coast campaign to keep a lid on its cosmology and punish opponents on the Internet whom it believes are subjecting the Church’s internal teachings to widespread scrutiny and derision. The Internet presents a nimble threat to Scientology because internal Church documents are posted and re-posted as fast as the Church hunts them down.

In spite of its street-corner solicitations for personality tests, the Church has always been a reluctant evangelist when it comes to its most closely held tenets. In the pay-to-pray paradigm of Scientology, adherents must purchase services to attain higher levels of spiritual awareness. Scientology is certainly not the only religion that uses tithing as a measure of fealty, but the Church has pioneered the deployment of trade secrecy and copyright suits to protect its articles of faith.

The case before Judge Brinkema took shape on Aug. 11, when the Church presented evidence that Lerma, a dissident former member, was posting training materials from the Church’s “Operating Thetan” levels on the Internet. The documents had been introduced as evidence in a separate slander case in California, but the Church maintains that the material was stolen to begin with and should not be reproduced. Judge Brinkema approved a writ of seizure, and Church officials showed up at Lerma’s home on Aug. 12 in the company of federal marshals. The Church officials searched Lerma’s house and seized all his computers and disks, some two gigabytes of data.

While the Scientologists were busy carting away his database, Lerma mentioned that he had mailed some of the allegedly infringing documents to the Post‘s Richard Leiby. (Whether he was intimidated or just wanted to link destinies with a media giant remains an open question.) Church officials made an unannounced appearance at Leiby’s home at 6:30 that evening.

“The visit was incredibly rude,” Leiby recalled. “I was just sitting down to dinner with out of town guests and my wife and children when Helena Kobrin and Warren McShane showed up on my doorstep, claiming that I possessed stolen documents and demanding them from me.” Leiby said the documents were at the paper and that they should call the Post‘s lawyers.

The Post returned the material to the Church of Scientology on Aug. 15, at Lerma’s request. But the paper also succeeded in obtaining a copy of the same documents from the court file in California on Monday, Aug. 14. Church officials had believed the public documents were safe because Church employees assiduosly baby-sat the files for two years. Scientologists arrived when the District Court in Los Angeles opened, checked out the files, and kept them secure until the courthouse closed. Post reporter Kathryn Wexler stopped by the courthouse on Aug. 14 and asked the clerk, whom she knew, to make a copy of some pages from the file. The Scientologist guarding the documents questioned the clerk’s right to make a copy of the public court record, but the Post reporter got what she came for. (The Church has since succeeded in having the case file in California closed, at least for the time being.)

Then, on Aug. 19, the Post published a Style piece about the raid on Lerma’s house. The story, written by Marc Fisher, quoted 46 words from the 100-plus pages copied from the court file. The limited reprint would seem to fall well within the bounds of “fair use,” but the Church argued there can be no such thing as fair use of a trade secret.

In the wake of the story, the Church added the Post and two of its reporters to its suit against Lerma on Aug. 22. The Church asked the court to enjoin the Post from publishing anything involving the disputed documents until the issue of trade secrecy was resolved, but on Aug. 30, Judge Brinkema declined: “The public interest lies with the unfettered ability of the Post to report on the news.”

The Church asked Judge Brinkema to reconsider her ruling in a hearing on Sept. 15. Earle Cooley, a Scientologist and the chair of the board of Boston University, represented the Church. In a creaky, hyperbolic performance, Cooley argued that the Washington Post was part of a conspiracy to diminish the religion and suggested that former Scientologist Lerma was guilty of cyber-terrorism. Cooley had a pretty thin set of facts—after all, the “stolen” documents the Post published came from open court files—but he railed magnificently against “thieves” and “apostates” who have been usurping Church doctrine “inch by agonizing inch.”

Cooley called the Post‘s decision to quote 46 words of Church teachings “vicious.”

“So-called fair use cannot possibly be permitted. It is a sacrilege to these Scientologists,” he told Judge Brinkema. “They have mowed down my client’s rights in an exercise of their own.”

Cooley made repeated attempts to rail against the Church’s enemies, but Judge Brinkema firmly reminded him to stick to the issues at hand. In an effort to emphasize the sanctity of the texts the Post quoted and Lerma posted, Cooley mentioned that he had not seen the documents, even though he is a practicing Scientologist and an attorney of record in the Church’s suit.

“I am not allowed to see those materials….that will never happen. I am here to defend principles,” he said.

Cooley’s “don’t ask, just tell” defense caught Judge Brinkema’s attention. “How can you as an officer of the court ask me to review documents that you yourself have not seen?” she asked.

“It is not necessary for me to see them. I have not had the appropriate training,” Cooley explained.

The courtroom was packed with Scientologists and cyber-nerds. Just inside the rails sat Lerma, a video and sound technician who lives in Arlington. Lerma was a Scientologist for more than a decade and was romantically involved with Hubbard’s daughter. But in the past few years, he has been waging war on Scientology, in and around the Internet newsgroup alt.religion.scientology, including posting Church training manuals. Since the Post obtained its documents from an open court file, it’s unclear how intertwined the paper’s legal destiny is with that of Lerma, but for the time being, both are before Judge Brinkema fighting charges of unauthorized use.

In its motions, the Church claimed Lerma’s mailing to Leiby was an attempt to “launder” the documents and suggested that the source and reporter may have been involved in the militia movement. In a statement approved by Post lawyers, Leiby defended the appropriateness of his relationship with Lerma. “I consider Lerma to be a good source—he reads the Internet regularly and was involved in the Perot movement and follows the goings-on of government in Arlington,” Leiby said.

“Scientology’s foremost principle in dealing with journalists, ex-members, and other critics is to attack them and link them to alleged crimes—and thereby deflect attention away from any criticism of Scientology,” he added.

In a press release, the Church suggested there is “evidence which shows that Richard Leiby choreographed and instigated Lerma’s illegal conduct for his own campaign of harassment against the Scientology religion….Leiby’s campaign dates back more than 15 years.”

In 1979, Leiby worked for the Clearwater Sun in Clearwater, Fla., and published a series of investigative reports about the Church of Scientology’s battle with city officials. Church members marched on the paper to protest the series. Leiby wrote nothing about Scientology for the next 13 years—and even received an investigative award from Scientologists for a 1981 series he did on the care of the elderly. But on Christmas Day, 1994, he authored a very pointed story about Lerma’s battle with the Church of Scientology.

Church spokeswoman Susan Taylor said Leiby “bears a grudge” against the Church, but said that “overall, we have received very fair treatment from the Post.” She emphasized that the Church is suing the paper over “a very narrow issue.” The Church’s court filings take a less conciliatory tack, suggesting the paper chose to “infringe upon proprietary rights, traffic in stolen trade secrets, coddle thieves.” “What our reporters did was newsgathering,” responded Post lawyer Mary Ann Werner in an interview with Washington City Paper. “They want to suggest that we are part of some conspiracy. Our interest was in writing a news story that our readers would understand, and that is what we did.” The judge refused to reconsid er the ruling and the Post is currently free to report on the Church, although it’s not likely Leiby or Fisher will be involved. The underlying case continues, but the paper recently filed a motion for summary judgment against the Church. A hearing is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 13.

“The Church of Scientology is seen as a formidable force by many in the media, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Church would find value in this case, even if it is unsuccessful,” said Werner.

She might be on to something there. Given the Church’s punishing legal style, perhaps some media outlets might steer away from rattling its cage if they can avoid it. Come to think of it, in the 2,000 words of this story, there were no direct quotes from any of the disputed records, even though they have been published elsewhere, reproduced on the Internet, and submitted as evidence in an open court case. Go figure.

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Charles Steck.