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Talks under way over Mormon lawsuit against cult-watchers’ Internet site

SALT LAKE CITY (BP)–A battle over a copyright infringement lawsuit — with ramifications for the Internet’s informational content, First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and the secretive nature of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — may soon be settled out of court.

An attorney for the Mormon Church and one of those involved with the Utah Lighthouse Ministry of Salt Lake City have expressed optimism that negotiations are moving toward a settlement of a lawsuit filed by the Mormon Church against the evangelical ministry for printing — on its Internet site last July — portions of an unpublished, copyrighted Mormon book.

On their Utah Lighthouse Ministry’s website, www.utlm.org, Sandra and Jerald Tanner posted the excerpts explaining how people may have their names removed from Mormon Church rolls. The effort was part of the cult-watcher ministry’s primary mission of exposing heresy pertaining to the Mormon Church and assisting people who want to leave Mormonism. The Tanners obtained the book from an anonymous source who left a copy — contained on a computer disc — in their mailbox.

The legal struggle began in October when the Mormon Church, through its Intellectual Reserves, Inc., subsidiary that holds the rights to its intellectual property, sued the Tanners, alleging copyright infringement.

A U.S. district judge subsequently issued a temporary restraining order, a ruling that required the Tanners to remove the pages from their Internet site. The Tanners complied, but later posted an e-mail message from a reader containing Internet addresses where the entire book — “Church Handbook of Instructions, Book 1, Stake Presidencies and Bishoprics” that deals with church disciplinary procedures — could be read.

The Mormon Church, in response, asked the judge to order the Tanners to remove the addresses on the theory they were encouraging others to view and make illegal copies of the handbook pages.

The judge ordered the addresses removed — igniting a fierce cyberspace debate over whether the ruling restricted the freedom of Internet users from linking one website to another.

“The Internet is all about linking,” said Jeffrey Kuester, a copyright lawyer who practices cyberspace law in Atlanta. The judge’s restraining order could have “a chilling impact on anyone who wants to tell someone else where something can be found on the Web.”

But T.R. Halvorson, a Sidney, Mont., attorney specializing in cyberspace issues, said the order should not be viewed with alarm, that it is specifically targeted at Web users who post unpublished, copyrighted material or addresses where such material can be viewed and distributed even further via links on the Web.

This judge “is no threat to free speech,” Halvorson said in a study devoted to the case published in March. “[The judge] is not going to destroy the Web as we know it. You are not infringing copyrights when you browse copyrighted material posted to the Web by the copyright holders.”

In this case, the Tanners were not the copyright holders of the book and the Mormons had not made the book available, he noted.

However, the Tanners’ Salt Lake City attorney, Brian Barnard, said the information posted by the Tanners had been circulating on the Internet for six months and that they removed it as soon as they were contacted. Barnard said the legal action by the Mormon Church has more to do with the mission of Utah Lighthouse than it does with anything else.

“The Tanners have been critics of the LDS Church for some time,” Barnard said. ” I think they are being singled out for this litigation. The New York Times put up URLs [Internet addresses] with links to the same information as my clients put up. The Salt Lake City Tribune published the same URLs and neither The Tribune nor The New York Times is being sued. So it appears this litigation is based more on a theological dispute.”

Other observers question the merit of the original lawsuit, arguing that most copyright infringement cases involve things like selling or distributing unauthorized copies of computer software. In such cases, the argument goes, the copyright infringement reduces the copyright holder’s capacity to make a profit on the copyrighted material. But the LDS has no plans to make a profit off the publication involved in the Tanner lawsuit, leaving theorists to ask, “How does the free distribution of a small part of it hurt the LDS?”

Neither side in the legal battle would divulge how the issues might be settled through their ongoing negotiations.

“There has been some discussion between the parties that may lead to a settlement,” Berne Broadbent, an attorney for the Mormon Church, told Baptist Press April 6. Broadbent said he did not know when a settlement might be reached.

Sandra Tanner said she thinks the Mormons “just want to get rid of this whole thing” because allies interested in protecting the Internet’s freedom to share information are lining up to join in the legal fray. Indeed the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group that studies cyberspace freedom of expression issues, has promised to get involved in the case by filing its own brief expressing its reservations about the restriction imposed on the Tanners from the restraining order.

“We will not pay any money or admit to any guilt, but we will agree to destroy the disc that has the book,” Tanner told Baptist Press April 6.

“By them going after us, they have created a backlash by people who would have never thought of it. It has been a boost to our Internet site and brought many people to us that might otherwise would not have known about us.”

While the legal battle may soon end, debates over the secretive operations of the Mormon Church and individuals’ First Amendment rights to freedom of religion will linger.

Tanner, who was featured in a video explaining Mormon beliefs issued prior to the 1998 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Salt Lake City by the SBC’s North American Mission Board, said Utah Lighthouse Ministry’s website was established to let people know that “the Mormon religion is false, that Joseph Smith is a false prophet and that they are in danger of jeopardizing their eternal welfare.”

“In other churches you would have been given a manual when you joined that would have laid out their church discipline policies,” she said. “But in Mormonism, you are not given a church handbook that explains their discipline processes and, in fact, they are kept secret from you.

“In the Mormon Church they never drop you from the rolls no matter how inactive you have been. I have people writing us all the time, asking what they have to do to get [the LDS] off their backs.”

The case also raises questions about the First Amendment rights of those wishing to leave Mormonism.

The LDS was criticized last year after some people claimed they received harassing phone calls from the cult for writing letters requesting they be removed from church rolls.

“This type of response to a letter from a member of a church asked to be removed from a church’s membership rolls is clearly an unconstitutional attack on the freedom of religious rights of those who wrote the letters,” editorialized William Tibbits in the University of Utah independent student newspaper, The Daily Utah Chronicle.

“Freedom of religion, like all rights protected in the Bill of Rights, is a right for individuals, not organizations. This means that freedom of religion exists not for churches but for the members of those churches.

“In the context of the LDS Church, this means that people who wish to leave the LDS Church should be able to write a letter stating that wish and be left alone.”

Tanner said people outside the Mormon Church are amazed they have a handbook that they would hide.

“For the first time people realized there was a handbook,” she said. “Suppressing something creates more interest. I don’t understand why the church didn’t have an open policy to begin with.”

    About the Author

  • Don Hinkle