A Prosecution, 2000 Years in the Making

To outsiders, the issue may appear trivial, even silly, but to Dead Sea Scrolls scholars, it is all-consuming.  And rather than chuckle at the vehemence with which these academics thrusted and parried, and took their stabs where they could find them, the New York County District Attorney has chosen instead to pick sides in this arcane debate by prosecuting Raphael Golb. 

What makes this significant to the rest of us is that his crime is sending out emails and writing blog posts under false names, sockpuppets, to bolster one side and attack the others.  If this is criminal, half the internet has committed a capital offence.

The story is convoluted and nuanced, as almost anything involving academics tends to be, but boiled down to its basics, Norman Golb, Raphael’s father, a University of Chicago professor, was the leading proponent of the “Jerusalem Libraries” theory of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which contends that the scrolls were hidden by various libraries in Jerusalem as the Romans laid seige to the city in the year 70. 

The prevailing theory, that the scrolls were created by a sect called the Essenes, thought to have lived near the Qumran caves where the scrolls were found, is favored by Christian scholars and supported by the “monopoly” in possession of the scrolls.  Lawrence Schiffman, head of Judaic Studies at NYU, was a leader of the “Qumran-sectarianists” and Golb’s academic nemesis.  If you want to know more about the details of the respective theories, look it up, but this makes naked mud-wrestling look tame.  Seriously.

As Jim Dwyer described it in the New York Times,

Mr. Golb is, or was, a guerrilla fighter in a cyberbrawl over the Dead Sea Scrolls, a war about the origins of 2,000-year-old documents that has consumed the energy of academics around the globe.

He was being arrested for fighting dirty.

Mr. Golb is 49 years old and had 50 e-mail aliases. He used pseudonyms to post on blogs. Under the name of a professor he was trying to undermine, prosecutors charged, Mr. Golb wrote a quasi confession to plagiarism and circulated it among students and officials at New York University.

The point of all this nonsense was to influence the academic debate, for Golb to have his father’s theory taken seriously and allowed to be heard amidst the “monopoly” clatter.  Mind you, Schiffman was busy ridiculing and attacking Golb as well.

So Raphael Golb wrote.  And wrote and wrote.  Using plenty of names to suggest that there was a strong following in support of his father.  The other side played the same game.  The difference was that Golb created gmail accounts and sent out emails, and one of the names he used was Lawrence Schiffman, and the emails were sent to Schiffman’s grad students and dean, suggesting that he had committed plagiarism in an article.  A First Amendment and substantive grounds, arguing against this effort to criminalize the speech in the emails, and contort this nasty academic fight into a fraud as if monetary gain was involved, to no avail.   But the implications of this prosecution on internet free speech are enormous, possibly as significant as those raised in the Lori Drew prosecution

While juvenile and generally frowned upon, the use of sockpuppets and dubious parody emails purporting to come from one’s nemesis is common in online battles.  The arguments over pseudonymous posting is a perpetual battle over responsibility and accountability, but there’s no doubt that many people feel that they can’t speak freely under their own name and feel compelled to create personas to further their agendas.  Is this criminal?  Should this be criminal?

The argument that it’s the ideas that matter rather than the names used by the proponents has long been the foundation for free speech, both on the internet and in the real world.  That Raphael Golb felt that the only way to further his father’s ideas was to present them under pseudonyms, and that he created some fake gmail accounts to send out spoof emails that no one would seriously believe came from the purported sender, may well be viewed as, well, just plain stupid and childish.  But it’s no different than the stupid and childish approaches taken by many others on the internet, who stay awake at night because “someone on the internet is wrong.”

That the prosecutors in Manhattan think this conduct is the sort that requires prosecution, however, is beyond belief.  If Schiffman thinks Golb defamed him by accusing him of plagiarism, then let him sue for libel.  But to contend this is identity theft and impersonation is ludicrous.  There’s nothing about this ugly battle online, which isn’t a whole lot different than a million other ugly battles online except the parties wear tweed, that changes this from a hot and nasty debate into a crime.

It’s long been clear that courts, from the Supremes in Washington to the Supremes on Centre Street, aren’t the most internet and tech savvy folks around.  What seems so obvious, and relatively trivial, to us can appear strange and maybe even malevolent to those who have never been party to a flame war.  But are the prosecutors in Manhattan that out of touch, that unaware, that they seriously believe this to be an appropriate prosecution and Golb a criminal threat?

“So what are you in for?”
“Sockpuppeting.”
“Oh.”

And this is all about the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Can you imagine what would happen if it was over something that happened in the last, say, 500 years?  In the meantime, all you pseudonymous posters better watch your step.  Sheesh.

4 comments on “A Prosecution, 2000 Years in the Making

  1. Chuck Jones

    For another point of view on this matter see Robert Cargill’s pages at …

    [Ed. Note: Link deleted as per no links in comments policy.]

  2. SHG

    Cargill, who is an adherent of the Schiffman group, painstakingly details the sockpuppets and emails.  But that’s hardly another point of view.  The issue is criminalizing the conduct, not whether Golb engaged in the conduct.  Assuming he did, it doesn’t make it criminal.

  3. SusanK

    This is what happens when the number of “crimes” on the books balloons out of control. Civil courts are no longer as relevant as they used to be. Why bother suing in civil court where all a person gets is a judgment he or she may not be able to collect? It is far better to sweet talk a prosecutor: the State picks up the tab for the case, the competitor is thoroughly discredited via a criminal conviction, and the person “wronged” may actually get the pleasure of seeing his competitor in jail. Civil suits just can’t compete.

  4. Elie Kadouri

    One possibility that doesn’t seem to be addressed in this interesting and quite troubling piece is that Professor Schiffman was simply afraid of being exposed for real and serious past plagiarism, and had a feeling Professor Golb’s son couldn’t be stopped otherwise. Possibly, he was even indignant at the potential or ongoing exposure, which I think would correspond with one defining characteristic in the psychology of plagiarists.

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