Conviction of Scientology Critic Raises Free Speech Issue
Electronic Frontier Foundation Concerned US Court Violated Free Speech
Electronic Frontier Foundation Media Release
For Immediate Release: June 22, 2001
Cindy Cohn, EFF Legal Director,
+1 415 436 9333 x108
San Francisco - The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) today
expressed concern over a California court conviction of H. Keith
Henson in a case involving online criticism of the Church of
Scientology (CoS). In a decision which appears to have violated his
constitutional right to free speech, a jury in Riverside County
convicted Henson of threatening the free exercise of religion by
members of the CoS.
"We are deeply concerned that the decision violates Mr. Henson's free
speech rights," said EFF Legal Director Cindy Cohn. "Since he does not
appear to have made any credible threat of physical attack as required
for conviction under the U.S. Constitution, Mr. Henson has a legal
right to express criticisms online without fearing a prison term."
On April 26, 2001, Henson was convicted of threatening to interfere
with the CoS members' freedom to enjoy their constitutional right to
the free exercise of religion. Although official trial documents are
not yet available, the verdict seems based on Henson's activities
while picketing the CoS desert compound and postings on the Internet
alt.religion.scientology newsgroup. It appears that the postings
admitted into evidence included only fragments of longer postings or
threads taken out of context. For example, the defense was apparently
prohibited from showing that a comment about "cruise missiles" was
made in response to a joke about actor Tom Cruise. The trial judge
also allegedly forbid Henson from explaining why he was protesting
Henson was also accused of making and attempting to make terrorist
threats against the CoS, however the jury convicted only on a single
misdemeanor charge under a California "hate crime" statute. EFF is
concerned that the jury may have convicted Henson on this one charge
based on misinformation and mislabeling of evidence introduced at
The basic requirements for conviction under California Penal Code
section 422.6 are that "force or the threat of force" must be involved
and that "the speech itself threatened violence against a specific
person or group of persons and that the defendant had the apparent
ability to carry out the threat."
Neither of these requirements appear to have been met in Henson's
case. For instance, Henson's discussions apparently included
long-range missile systems in connection with the CoS desert compound.
Such statements seem inadequate to substantiate a reasonable fear that
he would actually launch or have the ability to launch a missile
attack against anyone.
Furthermore, a recent decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals,
Planned Parenthood v. American Coalition of Life Activists, clarified
that strong advocacy is protected expression stating, "it doesn't
matter if the speech makes future violence more likely; advocating
'illegal action at some indefinite future time' is protected."
Following his conviction, Henson took refuge in Canada where, based on
information Scientology sent to authorities, he was arrested in a
shopping mall parking lot, by a heavily armed paramilitary unit.
However, Canadian officials later released Henson and accepted his
application for asylum.
In a May 30th phone interview with the Toronto Star newspaper,
Henson's wife said that he is being targeted by the CoS because he has
been working to expose the group as a crime syndicate for five years.
EFF Executive Director Shari Steele commented, "EFF is deeply
disturbed by these possible violations of Mr. Henson's constitutional
rights. This trial seems intended to punish Mr. Henson for his
opposition to a powerful organization, using the barest thread of
legal justification to do so. EFF joins Mr. Henson's American counsel
in urging the California Court of Appeals to set aside this verdict
and confirm Mr. Henson's right to protest publicly a group that he
For more information on the Henson case, see:
For the public alt.religion.scientology postings, see:
Related media coverage:
http://www.politechbot.com/cgi-bin/politech.cgi?name=henson About EFF: The Electronic Frontier Foundation is the leading civil liberties organization working to protect rights in the digital world. Founded in 1990, EFF actively encourages and challenges industry and government to support free expression, privacy, and openness in the information society. EFF is a member-supported organization and maintains one of the most linked-to websites in the world: http://www.eff.org/