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The First Amendment and the Internet:

Religious Tech. Center v. Netcom On-Line Communications Services, Inc., 907 F. Supp. 1361 N. D. Calif. Sept. 22, 1995

Summary

In this case, an affiliate of the Church of Scientology sought an order to seize the computer equipment of a former Scientologist minister turned critic who allegedly posted Church copyrighted and trade secret protected works on the Internet. Citing the First Amendment’s prohibition against prior restraint of speech, the court denied the request.

Analysis

Netcom involved a suit brought by the Religious Technology Center, an organization affiliated with the Scientology Church, against, among others, Dennis Erlich, a former Scientology minister turned vocal critic of the Church who was alleged to have put Scientology works protected by trade-secret and copyright law onto the Net. The plaintiffs requested that Erlich’s computer and other equipment be seized, apparently to prevent his further posting of disputed Scientology works while the lawsuit proceeded.

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The United States District Court for the Northern District of California denied this request on First Amendment grounds. The court held that "[n]o amount of excessive copying in the context of criticism, which is potentially subject to a valid fair use defense, would warrant such a seizure." It also noted that Erlich’s equipment was essential to the operation of his business and other affairs. The court then held that, while an appropriately tailored injunction in a copyright case did not offend the First Amendment, "attempting to shut down a critic’s speech activities, including those that do not implicate the copyright laws in the least, would constitute an unwarranted prior restraint on speech."


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