December 24th, 2008
Keith Henson Appeal: Time to Undo an Injustice
Commentary by Cindy Cohn
The well-known Scientology protester Keith Henson has filed an appeal to the Appellate Division of the Riverside County Superior Court of his criminal conviction in 2001 of misdemeanor "interfering with a religion" for picketing in front of a Scientology "base" in Hemet, CA. The ruling was roundly criticized as inconsistent with Henson's First Amendment rights to criticize Scientology: much of the evidence used against him consisted of general statements he made online that were very critical of Scientology but fell far short of the sort of "true threat" required to overcome his First Amendment rights. The trial court also limited his ability to explain his actions or present contrary evidence. The Court of Appeal should take a hard look at the case and reverse the conviction.
Scientology watchers will recall that Henson sought, and temporarily obtained, political asylum in Canada right after the verdict, then was arrested upon his return to the US in 2007.
The Church of Scientology has been one of the earliest, and most aggessive users of intellectual property and other claims to silence the speech of its online critics. This year Scientology supporters launched a raft of copyright complaints aimed at removing anti-Scientology videos on YouTube. In the Henson case there is a serious concern that the criminal law was misused in an effort not to respond to any real threats, but instead to silence one of the Church's loudest and most persistent online critics. It's time to undo that injustice.