Getting Clear at BU?

Boston University chairman's legal role in Scientology copyright flap raises questions.


Earle Cooley, the chairman of Boston University's board of trustees, wants you to know that he believes in freedom of expression.

Never mind that the gruff, avuncular 64-year-old, one of Boston's top trial attorneys, has played a leading role in the Church of Scientology's efforts to use copyright law to keep secret church documents off the Internet.

Although the church has won some significant courtroom victories, critics, legal observers, and even judges criticize the zeal with which it has pursued its goals.

For instance, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema, in throwing out a copyright-infringement suit against the Washington Post late last year, called it "reprehensible" that church lawyers -- including Cooley -- would go after the newspaper for running a 46-word excerpt that was clearly covered by fair-use provisions. The church's aim, Brinkema wrote, was "the stifling of criticism and dissent of the religious practices of Scientology and the destruction of its opponents."

In an interview with the Washington Post in 1985, Cooley said that he was a Scientologist. His current relationship with the church is unclear. He now refuses to discuss whether or not he's a member, calling it a "vicious question."

Cooley, of course, is free to join whatever religion he likes. But Scientology is no ordinary religion. Critics such as Steven Hassan, author of "Combatting Cult Mind Control" (1988), charge that Scientology is a destructive cult that breaks down its adherents' free will. What's especially disturbing is that some ex-members and cult experts say the organization continues to follow the "fair game" policy of its late founder, L. Ron Hubbard, who wrote that "enemies" could be "deprived of property by any means by any Scientologist" and "tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed." Cooley and top church officials insist that the policy, announced in 1967, was misunderstood, and in any case was revoked a year later. But Herbert Rosedale, president of the American Family Foundation, an organization that opposes Scientology and other cults, says, "It is in force, and it is used with the same zeal with which it was used when it was first written."

During an interview in his office, a couple of blocks from the historic Custom House, Cooley offered a cogent defense. "I love Boston University, and I've worked very hard as a trustee for almost 22 years now," he said. "My role as an attorney for the Church of Scientology has never once entered into the performance of my duties as a trustee, and now, as chairman of the board. I'm very sensitive to Boston University being a place of free exchange. I would never try to stifle anybody."

Certainly there is no evidence that Cooley has ever tried to interfere with the open exchange of ideas at Boston University, from whose law school he graduated cum laude, in 1957. And the university's president, John Silber, rejects out of hand the notion that Cooley's Scientology connection should be an issue, calling it "a blatant violation of academic freedom and open inquiry to establish a religious test for members of the Trustees."

But the problem isn't Cooley's religious beliefs. It's his leadership role in Scientology's war against its critics on the Internet. These critics, who hold forth on the Usenet newsgroup alt.religion.scientology, post confidential documents, often anonymously, pertaining to the church's "Operating Thetan" beliefs, which hold that much human misery is caused by the souls of space aliens exploded in a volcano 75 million years ago. It's a revelation that Scientologists pay tens of thousands of dollars to learn; church doctrine holds that a person exposed to such knowledge without sufficient preparation could become sick or even die. Cooley argues that it's a matter of religious principle, protected by copyright law, that these documents remain under the control of the church, and he denounces critics who post them as "copyright anarchists."

Cooley's most controversial act came last August 12, when he and other church lawyers, accompanied by federal agents, raided the Arlington, Virginia, home of Arnaldo Lerma, a former church member who'd become a harsh critic. The lawyers took quite a haul: Lerma's computer, disks, a scanner, and other materials they thought he might have used to post secret, copyrighted church documents on the Internet.

Judge Brinkema eventually ruled that Lerma had, indeed, violated the church's copyright. (Lerma has appealed.) Nevertheless, Brinkema had harsh words for the manner in which the raid was carried out, and ordered that many of Lerma's materials be returned. "It was not the court's intention," she declared, "to give wholesale license to go through Mr. Lerma's possessions willy-nilly." Cooley responded by telling the judge that the scope of the raid was necessary to make sure that all copyrighted materials had been confiscated.

Recently Lerma, against the advice of his lawyers, wrote a letter to Judge Brinkema charging that one or more church represenatatives (though not Cooley) doused his toothbrush with LSD during the raid. The letter, which is part of the public court record, charges that the church's motive was to get Lerma to discredit himself at a video deposition to be conducted several days later. Cooley's response: "Absolute nonsense"; "a lie"; "a fantasy"; "crazy."

"The Scientology church litigates hard, and I'm not ashamed of being a part of that," Cooley said. "That goes with the territory. But I have never abused the legal system on behalf of the Church of Scientology or any other client."

In the long run, it seems that though Scientology is winning some battles, it may ultimately lose the war. Brinkema ruled against the church's contention that the beliefs described in the copyrighted documents are "trade secrets." And though the church has had some success in arguing that Internet providers are responsible for the copyright violations of its members, Mike Godwin, online counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says he's confident that the courts will ultimately find that providers should be held accountable only to the extent that phone companies are.

Says Lerma: "It's over. They can't stop it. They might win a case. But they're not going to win against the Net. The truth will prevail."

For more information on both sides of the Scientology copyright controversy, see the Church of Scientology's home page and an archive maintained by church critic Ron Newman.

Dan Kennedy ( is the media reporter for the Boston Phoenix (