By Phillip Taylor
August 7, 2001
A Scientology critic who fled to Canada to avoid his conviction in a
California court for threatening to interfere with the church's operations
has been sentenced to a year in prison.
But supporters of Keith Henson, a former computer engineer and longtime
opponent of the Church of Scientology, say he was unfairly convicted for
posting his criticism on the Internet and sponsoring protests in front of
Officials at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, for one, said the trial
judge repeatedly refused to consider Henson's comments in proper context.
"At the end of the day what it comes down to is, this grandfatherly man
who is very critical of Scientology is convicted for his speech," said
Robin Gross, staff attorney for the EFF, a San Francisco-based group. "The
Church of Scientology has been very successful using the law to squelch
criticism on the Internet, and he is a victim of that."
But church officials say the criminal case against Henson had absolutely
nothing to do the man's speech but with his conduct. The church claimed Ñ
and a California jury agreed last April Ñ that Henson created fear among
church members through stalking and threats.
The legal battles between Henson and the Church of Scientology stretch
back nearly a decade and include the church's successful copyright lawsuit
against Henson for excerpting the church's scriptures.
The latest fight between Henson and the church became a criminal one when
the church [falsely] complained that Henson was carrying picket signs reading "I'm
going to annihilate you" and "I will destroy you utterly" and following
church members home[sic]. The church said that on the Internet, Henson posted
similar comments, including one suggesting that he would launch a cruise
missile at one of the churches.
Aron Mason, public affairs director for the Church of Scientology, said
Henson also publicized the fact that he had a background in weapons
technology and held a patent on a missile-launching device.
"You have to take this thing a bit more seriously when you realize he's
capable of doing that," Mason said in a telephone interview. "He made it
so clear to us that he was serious."
But according to the EFF, the Church of Scientology embarked on a campaign
to discredit Henson, creating false claims of stalking and exaggerating
the man's postings.
EFF officials said Henson's background is in computer technology, not
missile systems, and claimed that if Henson's comments had been taken in
context, they would clearly be seen as jokes. The "cruise missile"
reference was a response to a joke about the sex life of Tom Cruise, a
prominent member of the church.
Shari Steele, EFF executive director, said her group's biggest concern is
one of the laws under which Henson was prosecuted. Prosecutors tried
Henson under a state hate-crime statute requiring evidence of "force or
the threat of force" 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."
Steele said Henson's statements didn't come close to reaching that
But she said the law itself is problematic because it makes speech against
a religious, social or fraternal group illegal.
"And not only illegal, criminal," Steele said in a telephone interview.
"And if he was stalking, then he should have been prosecuted under the
During Henson's trial in Riverside County Court, Deputy District Attorney
Robert Schwarz said the case against Henson had nothing to do with his
Internet posts, his picketing or his criticisms of Scientology. He said it
had everything to do with Henson stalking and threatening church members
at work and at home.
"It's unfathomable to me how anybody could think that you would not be
afraid about the type of person we're dealing with right now," Schwarz
said in closing arguments.
The jury convicted Henson on the criminal hate-speech charge of
threatening to interfere with the church's freedom to practice religion
but didn't reach a conviction on two other charges of terrorism.
On July 25, Superior Court Judge Robert Wallerstein sentenced Henson to
one year in jail and fined him $3,000. But Wallerstein gave Henson the
option of serving 180 days in jail and three years of probation.
Henson, who awaits a hearing in Canada on his status as a political
refugee, refused to accept the sentence. He could not be reached for
Several Web sites have surfaced to express support for Henson, including
one at www.operatingthetan.com and freehenson.tripod.com. There,
supporters say Henson didn't have a chance for a fair trial, claiming that
the court was suspiciously close with the church.
"What kind of Alice-in-Wonderland Court is it that allows organized
criminals to sit in the prosecutor's chair bringing charges against the
honest citizens, in which a heavily-armed cult has Mafia lawyers direct
the activities of the District Attorney?" an entry at
Mason of the Church of Scientology said Henson's attempt to gain asylum in
Canada smacks of "a conceited attempt to generate more publicity."
"If he has a disagreement with the conviction, he has a place to take it Ñ
the appeals court," Mason said.
Phillip Taylor, a writer based in Newport News, Va., is a free-lance
correspondent for freedomforum.org.