MSNBC reports on Slashdot vs. Scientology

17 Mar 2001

Slashdot.org censors online posting
Site removes comment from Church of Scientology text
March 16, 2001
By Roger Parloff 

On Friday morning, the open-source software developers' Web site Slashdot.org, where the faithful gather to preach the gospel of free software, free speech and a free Internet, was humbled by an even more dogmatic -- and litigious -- religion.

IN THE FACE of legal threats from the Church of Scientology, Slashdot pulled down an anonymous posting that quoted a copyrighted church tract, known as Operating Thetan, Section III (OT III). "It's an open forum, but as of today it's a little less open than it was yesterday," says Robin Miller, the editorial director of Slashdot's parent, the Open Source Development Network. "And we're not happy about that."

"Our lawyers tell us that it appears to be a violation of copyright law," Slashdot co-founder Rob "CmdrTaco" Malda wrote today in a post explaining the action, "and under the terms of the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998), we must remove it. Else we risk legal action that would at best be expensive, and potentially cause Slashdot to go down temporarily or even permanently."

In any other context, the legal decision would have been entirely unremarkable, since courts have repeatedly ordered Web sites to take down copyrighted Church of Scientology documents. Indeed, they have repeatedly ordered them to take down the very Thetan involved in this case.

Though Slashdot has removed the offending article, the site is not going down quietly. CmdrTaco's announcement offers readers a link to a Dutch site that quotes the offending tract. (The Dutch courts have, so far, found that site to be lawful under Dutch law, notwithstanding litigation by the Church of Scientology to shut it down.) Slashdot also linked to the results of a Google search listing 252 sites that offer information about OT III — including, in many instances, its text — as well as to the results of a broader AltaVista search, linking to 2,740 generally pertinent sites.

The Slashdot post urges disgruntled readers to write their congressional representatives to urge repeal or modification of the DMCA, which sets out the notice-and-takedown procedures that the Church of Scientology invoked to force the Web site to take down the copyrighted materials.

Of course, unless the copyright laws themselves are rewritten, altering the DMCA would do Slashdot no good in this dispute, and could actually leave it worse off than it is now. Under the DMCA, at least, Slashdot can operate an open forum without fear of liability so long as it abides by the notice-and-takedown provisions of the act when someone invokes them. Having complied with the Church’s DMCA demand, for instance, Slashdot cannot now be held liable for having infringed the Church's copyrights during the six days that the OT III was posted. Prior to the DMCA, Slashdot would still have been required to take down the Church materials once the Church protested, but it might conceivably also have been held liable for the first six days of posting as well.

The legality of linking to contraband materials, after you have been ordered to stop posting those materials yourself, remains unclear. At least two Federal District Court judges have found that such linking can be banned under appropriate circumstances. For example, Judge Lewis A. Kaplan of New York in August ordered hacker journalist Eric Corley not only to stop posting software that descrambles DVDs, but to stop linking to other sites that posted the software. That ruling has been appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which will hear oral arguments during the first week of April.

Quite apart from the legal consequences of defying the Church of Scientology and the laws of the United States, there's one more argument that could be made in favor of taking down the OT III post — though it’s highly unlikely it swayed Slashdot's Miller or Malda. According to accounts of Church doctrine that have come to light during past litigation, Operating Thetans like OT III are designed to help Church members combat evil spirits that were unleashed upon the universe about 75 million years ago when an extraterrestrial king named Xenu murdered his own people. Disclosure of the Thetans to non-Church members — or even to Church members who have not yet reached the point in their studies where they are ready to receive them — is said to invite catastrophic forces on a global scale.


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