Scientology Deserves Free Speech

As I have made clear, I believe that Scientology is a cult that deserves nothing but censure and ridicule. That is, Scientology deserves nothing else except to enjoy the basic rights due to every group and individual. Free speech means nothing unless we defend the right to speak by groups we detest.

I was therefore disturbed to read the following story in The Sydney Morning Herald:

Hackers declare Scientology D-day
Leo Shanahan
February 7, 2008 – 11:27AM

Anonymous internet users who have previously crashed Church of Scientology websites have named February 10 as a worldwide day of protest in a bid to “destroy” the controversial religion.

The group – called Anonymous – which includes skilled computer hackers, has posted a message on YouTube declaring war on Scientology, accusing it of trying to censor the internet and conducting “campaigns of misinformation”.

The apparent catalyst for the attack was YouTube’s decision to remove a video of Hollywood star Tom Cruise – one of Scientology’s most high-profile recruits – espousing the religion’s virtues after the church asked that it be pulled.

“Anonymous has therefore decided that your organisation should be destroyed, for the good of your followers, for the good of mankind, and for our own enjoyment,” the statement says. …

Last week several major Scientology websites crashed in the United States and Britain. The FBI was asked to investigate after envelopes of white powder were sent to 19 Scientology churches in the Los Angeles area. …

I do not know the full details of the Cruise video. However, one page that continues to host the video speculates:

Yesterday, for a few hours, the clip of Tom Cruise discussing his beliefs as a Scientologist appeared on Youtube, and was republished by Radar and Defamer. That video is no longer available, most likely after the Church of Scientology sent in a copyright infringement notice.

I do not know if the Church of Scientology in fact holds the copyright to the video. Assuming that it does, for the sake of argument, censorship does not mean enforcing copyright. However, obviously Scientology cares nothing about the profitability of the video; the church is rightly worried that the video makes the church look ridiculous. As the cited poster of the video adds, “Gawker is now hosting a copy of the video; it’s newsworthy; and we will not be removing it.” This is a complicated matter of copyright law, then, but, offhand (and I may change my opinion about this) I’d say that Scientology is within its rights to ask that the video be removed and Gawker is within its rights to host the video anyway. Hosting the Cruise video is not comparable to (for example) hosting a film that is elsewhere for sale.

Scientology can more plausibly be accused of censorship in its use of vindictive litigation to silence critics. Scientology seems little interested in respecting the rights of free speech of others. However, the solution to this problem is to reform the litigation process to curb abuses. Two wrongs do not make a right, and silencing Scientology is not the appropriate remedy for Scientology’s abuse of its critics. Scientology should be required to respect the rights of others, but beyond that the only legitimate way to counteract the organization is to criticize it in open debate.

People have the right to be Scientologists and to promote the ideology of the religion. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion demand that Scientologists be protected from those who would attempt to silence the religion. “First they came for the Scientologists…”