Keith Henson is waging a one-man crusade against Scientology. Arguing that the church threatens to undermine the First Amendment by suing opponents into submission, he has fought the house that L. Ron Hubbard built at every turn. Since 1995, when the church first angered Net users by trying to close down a newsgroup dedicated to discussing Scientology's practices, he has posted documents that the church considers secret on the Web, picketed the church's headquarters and defended his actions in court.
Just last month, the California Superior Court in Riverside County handed Henson a major defeat. Citing Henson's picketing in front of Riverside's Golden Era Productions (a sound and film studio for the Church of Scientology) last summer and messages he posted in a Scientology newsgroup, the court found Henson guilty of violating the state's hate-crimes law. His demonstrations, the court ruled, interfered with Scientologists' constitutional right to religious freedom.
Online critics of Scientology, and some free-speech advocates, responded to the decision with outrage, calling Henson "an American hero." His conviction, they said, was nothing less than a "miscarriage of justice," as one poster at geek site Slashdot put it. Others called Henson "a martyr."
Meanwhile, Henson's tactics have often seemed a bit quixotic -- even his supporters say that he tends to act without thinking. They question, for example, the wisdom of Henson's two-line contribution to a thread in the alt.religion.scientology newsgroup about directing a nuclear missile at church members. Henson contends that his post implied no real threat to Scientology members and that it was merely a response to another post in a long-running joke about "Cruise" (as in Scientology celeb Tom) missiles.
Still, it was an odd move for someone ostensibly dedicated to serious critique, and it brought an immediate outcry from Scientologists. "Free speech does not protect threats of mass destruction," said Scientology spokesman Ken Hoden. "It does not protect threats of missile attacks. It does not protect what he did. He's trying to hide behind the First Amendment."
David Touretzky, a Carnegie Mellon computer scientist and fellow Scientology gadfly, says that Henson tends to incriminate himself in his encounters with Scientologists -- often providing church officials with legal ammunition they later use against him.
Henson's legal strategy has been criticized as well. Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says that Henson refused to let the civil liberties nonprofit represent him, choosing instead to have a court-appointed attorney. Henson contests Cohn's claim -- "I've never been offered help from the EFF," he says -- but just last week, he once again confounded his fans by failing to show up at his sentencing hearing, where he could have been sent to jail for a year.
So where is Keith Henson and what is he up to? In a telephone interview from Canada -- where he's applying for political asylum -- Henson explained why he played hooky from the hearing and what he hopes to achieve by moving his case forward from abroad.
You're now a fugitive from justice -- why?
I actually came up here for a different reason. I came up here to picket for another cause. But while I was here, a bunch of people were trolling on the Net, talking about my coming up here as a political refugee. And there was so much trolling and so much interest that we said, "Why not?" So I stayed over an extra day and we checked with Guidy Mamann, who is apparently a top immigration lawyer in Canada. We chatted for a while, and I filled out the paperwork. He fired up a Web browser, found some stories and said this was a viable case. So I blew off [the California court] and I've already paid [Mamann] a retainer to deal with this from up here.
Why not stay and fight from the States?
Well, I would have gotten a certain amount of PR and done a certain amount of damage to [the church] had I gone back and gone to jail there. But there's a justification for being here. In spite of the fact that there's more risk and that it generates even more criminal problems for me, nonetheless, being here has the potential to generate more heat on Scientology.
Have you been in touch with the American courts?
Oh yeah, I talked to the probation guy down there this morning [Thursday]. I just updated him on where I was and what was going on. He didn't have much to say.
You seem to enjoy being a martyr for the cause.
Other people hold me up as a martyr. I'm not a martyr; I just kick ass.
But it must feel good to be in the spotlight. How much of what you're doing has to do with the a desire for attention?
It's a minor factor. The social strokes are reward for doing good stuff -- I wouldn't deny that. People work hard to get the Nobel Prize. I'm not going to get the Nobel Prize. I'm not going to get any kind of prize. But I'm a known person because I've been involved with this stuff for a long time.
How much have you spent on your case?
I've spent about $35,000.
How long do you plan to stay in Canada?
Forever. If the U.S. government decides that what I did was not within the framework of free speech, if the [U.S.] State Department supports the government of Riverside County in what I'm arguing is an abuse of human rights, then I ain't going back.
So what happens next?
Well, there's going to be a review of the situation. Because when you apply for refugee status on the basis of human rights, your lawyer is your advocate and the Canadian government is your opposition.
An immigration review board adjudicates this thing. And in order to do this, by treaty and custom, the Canadian [authorities] go to the State Department. They have to go in and investigate, and come up with the transcripts and motions and all of that. They need it in order to defend themselves, to prove that what went on was a fair and unbiased problem.
So the State Department sometimes does this [itself], and at other times [it has] the Justice Department do it. But I suspect that when they start doing this thing -- and they realize that there were severe violations of protocol -- what may well happen is that they may march through Riverside County, Calif., and deal with [the church].
What's the goal of your efforts?
The ultimate goal is to reform or completely destroy Scientology. It's completely undemocratic.
Do you feel like you're getting anywhere with this, in the big picture?
Oh yes, yes indeed. This is the endgame. I don't know whether we're years away or months away or even weeks away. But the problems that Scientology has at this time are legion. Let's put it this way: a [Scientology] event that for years had been attended at a fairly high level had 40 percent of the people show up that they expected.
Where'd you get that number?
From people who were there. We have spies with Scientology -- disaffected Scientologists -- all over the country.
It all sounds so cloak-and-dagger.
Oh, it's definitely that. For example, we think there's a pretty fair chance that Scientology will try to do a snatch-and-grab situation up here, where they come after me.
Are you saying that you're afraid you'll be kidnapped?
So are you just staying at that same house -- the one where you're talking from?
No. I'll be living at a number of safe houses here. I'm also taking perhaps as [much] as a billion dollars of electronics work out of California.
Are you talking about a business that's already established in California?
No, it's a huge development project, a huge development and production project. But I'm not going to go into detail about it. You'll find out. If it works, you'll find out about it shortly.
Since when are you the kind of person who protects secrets?
OK, I'll give you this. Let's just call it a billion-dollar-scale, cryptic stealth surveillance technology. That'll keep them guessing.