Golb Convicted, Making Sockpuppets Criminals

The case of New York lawyer Raphael Golb was bizarre from the start.  It was a fight over scholarship, with Golb going underground when his father, a University of Chicago professor, was frozen out of the scholarly conversation about the Dead Sea Scrolls.  It was a ridiculous case to try.

Remember those funny parodies, where wags would scarf up names like Eric Holder and post all manner of things that would be very embarrassing, but for the fact that everyone knew them to be a game played by online jokesters?  Not so funny now, eh?  Of course, Eric Holder isn’t Lawrence Schiffman, and would likely laugh at the meme.  Schiffman apparently can’t take a joke.

The bad news is, Raphael Golb was convicted.

A scholar’s son was convicted Thursday of using online aliases to harass and discredit his father’s detractors in a heated academic debate over the origins of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

A Manhattan jury found Raphael Golb guilty of 30 counts against him, including identity theft, forgery and harassment. He was acquitted of one count of criminal impersonation.

Stupid thing to do? Absolutely, but consider its implications for all the rest of the comedians, the angry people, the snarks, the jokesters.  This is your boat, kids.  But what about the harm, you ask?  Doesn’t impersonation require that there be some damage, some monetary gain, something?

District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance said stealing money isn’t the only type of identity fraud.

“Using fictitious identities to impersonate victims is not what open academic debate seeks to foster,” he said.

Say what?  Cy, good buddy, those two statements don’t go together.  You aren’t the arbiter of academic debate, and there’s no crime of unfostering.  Identity fraud requires that something be stolen, that someone be harmed.  When we do away with harm, and substitute empty rhetoric in its place, all the really funny jokesters are just as guilty.  And there are a lot of really funny (though some are brutal as well) people on the internet. 

My old friend Ron Kuby, Golb’s lawyer, is of the view that there was much to be desired about the trial; legal issues that were put off to trial, then never actually decided because Judge Carol Berkman said she had already denied them.  The whole First Amendment aspect of the case fell through the cracks this way.  I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think Judge Berkman has a facebook page.  Ron wasn’t impressed  by the alleged harm done here.

“Today what happened was the district attorney of New York County and the trial court made hurting somebody’s feelings a criminal act,” defense lawyer Ronald Kuby said. “In New York, hurting people’s feelings or being annoying is not a crime. We call that Monday.”

Or Friday, as the case may be. 

Much like the Lori Drew prosecution, ultimately tossed for lack of a crime, this was a case that should never have been prosecuted.  NYU professor Lawrence Schiffman, the putative victim of Golb’s impersonation, claimed that he didn’t want Golb prosecuted.  Yet after the verdict, he has this to say:

He said in a statement Thursday that he was appreciative of the work on the case.

“Let us hope that the field of Dead Sea Scrolls research can get back to its real business — interpreting the ancient scrolls and explaining their significance for the history of Judaism and the background of early Christianity,” he said.

He’s disgraced himself amongst the Dead Sea Scroll scholars by using a criminal prosecution to shut down his most vocal critic.  He’s now disgraced himself again within the academic community by ignoring that the issue arose from his having shut out Norman Golb from the scholarly dialogue, even denying Golb access to the scrolls lest he find something that undercuts Schiffman’s claims.

For those of us less concerned with the Dead Sea Scrolls per se (though who isn’t, really), the implications of this conviction are broad and disastrous.  If playing with a sockpuppet on the internet, no harm done beyond some hurt feelings, is enough to land you in prison, we’ve got a lot of potential felons out there taking some major risks for a few laughs or to get the upper hand in an argument. 

The rough and tumble of the internet is no longer an issue of free speech, but hurt feelings.  Read it and weep.  We are all in some serious trouble now.

20 comments on “Golb Convicted, Making Sockpuppets Criminals

  1. Lee

    So I should or should not continue retweeting people and just typing things they never said? Shit! I’m sorry Mrs. Palin.

  2. Steven Avery

    Hi,

    Thanks for some sensible comments. While I do not take a position as to whether there were really some minor criminal actions involved (notably in the email sent out in the name of Lawrence Schiffman to his students .. which makes for poor parody).

    I am aghast that this whole brouhaha became a 50-count felony indictment, a real abomination for internet law and an incredible waste of resources. The fact that the indictment included “identity theft” shows that at very best “good cases makes bad law”.

    Perhaps the prosecutors looked at “identity theft” as a throw-away charge, they may as well have looked for a RICO indictment as long as they had gone so far into the world of prosecutorial make-believe.

    Robert Cargill says on his website that he had unraveled the whole thing with the sock-puppets quickly (he was correcting some reporting, perhaps NY Post, I don’t have the quote handy), so it was easy to post the web-page documenting the problem. Then if a colleague says “what about this accusation” you respond “oh, that must be from the flake Rapheal, here is my blog or web-page explaining”. This type of response has been done 100 times on the Net.

    Robert Cargill also says:
    “Scholars should never personally smear or attempt to harm the professional development of anyone with whom they disagree.”

    Balderdash. If you believe, right or wrong, that a person is a plagiarist, clearly speaking your perception of truth about the matter would be an “attempt to harm” – and in the current environment the response that seems to be favored would be a far more severe “attempt to harm” .. find a friendly prosecutor and have him make out a felony indictment for “harassment”, etc.

    Robert Cargill or the lawyers go into a whole shpiel about about how writing to the colleagues of an individual is “harassment” more than writing to him directly. Such stupidity. If I believe that a person is doing something wrong, I have every right to write to his boss, his colleagues and his friends, you can even say I have an ethical responsibility to warn people. From an etiquette point of view using multiple sock-puppets is a tacky way to achieve that end. Yet most recipients of emails in professional circles are justly wary of emails from names unknown anyway. They want to be able to call the person back and discuss the issues directly and know their position and status, few are fooled by puppets.

    Shalom,
    Steven Avery
    Queens, NY

    PS
    Note: I have a 30-page article from 2004 on the Net about a Bible plagiarism case, it led to a mini-civil-suit 5 years later, afaik settled without a trial, that indirectly was based on the research of a lady named Kathryn and myself. So I got familiar with some of the Internet speech issues.

  3. SHG

    There is little point is arguing that Golb’s conduct wasn’t foolish, childish, offensive and contrary to the rules of etiquette for scholars.  But that doesn’t make them criminal.  On the other hand, opposing scholars don’t have their adversaries prosecuted to shut them up either.

    This sad affair not only affects this small niche of biblical scholarship, but puts the common foolishness of internet users everywhere at risk of prosecution.  Most of us really hate suckpuppets, and think them cowards and liars, but we would never think they should be prosecuted or imprisoned for it.  It makes them internet schmucks, not criminals.

  4. Howard Fredrics

    I am appalled by the recent prosecution and conviction of Raphael Golb. While not professing to be an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls issue, it seems that there is an honest disagreement among scholars taking place. When Raphael Golb took the unwise step of sending emails in the name of his father’s rival, he may have used poor judgment, and created an awkward situation for Prof. Schiffman, but surely, it would have taken one phone call from the Dean at NYU to establish that the email didn’t come from Schiffman himself. Besides, no academic would make such an acknowledgment of plagiarism in a mass email, as Raphael Golb apparently did in the name of Prof. Schiffman. Therefore, no one receiving it should have taken it seriously to the point of believing that it actually came from Schiffman, himself. But even if it was believed, if even for a moment, such a sequence of events does not a crime make.

    I, myself, was subjected to a criminal harassment prosecution in Britain for operating what was clearly a satirical whistleblower website using a domain name, sirpeterscott.com. This site exposed important and true information in the public interest, leading to several successful government inquiries into academic propriety at a major British university. Had I not leaked some of the information I had in the way I had done it — using satire, parody, and humor, along with dry, hard factual documents, on a website that attracted over 1 million hits — perhaps the British press and ultimately, the government, might not have taken action to ensure that the wrongdoing was dealt with.

    Many whistleblowers are ignored or victimized by their employers until they are forced to resort to more extreme, albeit non-violent, measures to publicize their cause. I brought many of these matters to the attention of university officials and other relevant bodies without achieving positive results until I took the step of creating my website. I lost my job PRIOR to creating my site because I had come forward with genuine concerns using the proper internal procedures.

    Let’s hope Raphael Golb receives a fair appeal of his conviction and that sanity returns to our system.

  5. Eve Scherr

    I noticed that newspapers only quoted the first half of Cy Vance’s statement. I found the entire quote:

    “It is true that the vast majority of identity thieves seek to steal their victims’ money, but in some cases identity thieves maliciously intend to damage their victims’ reputations and harass them, while cowering in anonymity. Such was the case here.”

    I actually attended the trial, and I kept wondering about this defamation issue. Does that belong in criminal court?

  6. SHG

    There’s nothing in Cy’s quote that suggests a crime.  It sounds evil, but sounding evil doesn’t make it criminal.

  7. John David Galt

    This doesn’t sound like an issue of hurt feelings to me. It sounds like an issue of attempted scientific fraud.

    What will happen to open scientific debate if you get your way, and all similar fraud cases are handwaved away as “crybabyism” on the part of victims?

  8. SHG

    I would be remiss not to point out the irony of your comment coming from someone who posts under the pseudonym of an Ayn Rand character.

  9. David E Y Sarna

    As far as I can tell, the only disgrace is that a lawyer, who should know better, mouthed off without attending the trial, without having read the transcripts, without have seen the documents and without having any of his facts straight attacked an innocent scholar who has suffered so much already. For shame.

  10. Steven Avery

    Hi,

    So we will include with the great frauds and hoaxes, like the Piltdown man and Sokol’s ““Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” the great 21st century scientific fraud !

    Robert Golb posts under many pseudonyms to support his pops academic theories — forcing sloppy moderation of scholastic internet forums to become a bit more attentive.

    Hmmm..

  11. Steven Avery

    Hi,

    Good to have a sensible forum-blog.

    Now I have some comments with questions, especially for those who attended the trial.

    Robert Cargill essentially acknowledged that there was no secret about the poster identity among those on the Internet in response to a newspaper report that said :

    “For a while, no one knew that 50 different names in the Dead Sea Scrolls debate were the prolific Mr. Golb”,

    In response Robert Cargill wrote 11/08/2009 on his blog:

    “this is incorrect. i knew, as did a host of others. we all knew. i knew who it was. i tracked everything he did. the potential libel and defamation were civil matters, and i wanted an accurate log of everything golb did or wrote.”

    ** we all knew ** –
    ie. the Internet academic community.

    Thus the only issue was really forum moderation, Cargill is giving a de facto acknowledgment that this was easy to see, understand and handle.

    However, did the jurors and judge understand that point ? Did the jurors know that email forums have this type of stuff all the time, that the whole shtick was understood at the beginning . And especially that any forum can easily moderate “new posters” or any posters. If they did, then I believe it would be trivially easy to see that the sockpuppet stuff was tacky and dumb .. yet no real damage, no crime.

    (Ultimately .. if handled properly .. even a consent agreement or probation could simply say .. Raphael Golb, write only under your own name for x years.)

    Cargill continues:

    “but when he crossed the line and acted criminally by impersonating nyu professor dr. lawrence schiffman, i contacted schiffman (as i had done with several other scholars before him), told him who was behind it, and handed what i had collected over to the ny district attorney’s office.”

    So Cargill is the fella who ran to the Attorney General. Did he ask Professor Schiffman to simply call Norman Golb and try to straighten this out first ? The proper way. “We know this is your son Raphael, he crossed the line writing to my students with an account that is meant to appear as me .. we need an apology and retraction”. Did Cargill even have a lawyer send a cease-and-desist letter to Raphael ? The proper path.

    As to the schiffman email account and the letter sent out .. this I understand is a difficult area — as far as real law is concerned this should have been the only issue.. legal or not ? And with the previous history already established, that everyone knew who was doing it .. it is hard to imagine it would be any great shakes. There are many methods to handle this short of a fifty count felony indictment .. the stain of the year upon the New York DA.

    It looks like a NYC justice club at work – question.. does anybody know if Schiffman and Morgenthau are actually friends, or perhaps simply cordial acquaintances in NY circles ? Both who have had decent careers, imho, up to this point. Note: I do not see Schiffman as a plagiarist .. (continues)

  12. Steven Avery

    except in the “all scholars are plagiarists” sense. Did he slight Norman Golb a few times ? A non-issue to me. And I think it was a legal blunder to have that non-starter distraction as any part of the defense discussion.

    Thus the gmail account issue I still would consider relatively minor, because there was no hacking of Professor Schiffman’s real accounts (which could in fact be a type of real “identity theft”). It might even justify a one-count indictment .. felony ?, very questionable .. to be plea-bargained, or consent agreement .. with a junior intern DA handling it in spare time .. but the way this was handled is truly amazing, an abomination. To a certain extent I also would blame limelight Kuby for the way this ended up, who looked to be trying to play three ends against the middle. Although, to be fair, I read a good part of his brief, and much of it was well-written. The case was poorly handled, the deck may have been stacked, the plea bargain probably should have been worked (for Golb’s finances and future). Yet I understand that he may have seen a principle involved, then he should have handled the case in a principled manner.

    Incidentally, one of the supposedly aggrieved parties, an actor and minor scholar, has a history as an aggressive, harassing poster on the Internet. So that adds to the vendetta idea, a little cabal at work, a few thin-skinned minor players. Cargill was clearly upset that Golb had written to folks at UCLA and decided to be a pit-bull. I compliment his techie work, I think his playing the NY DA card quickly really shows questionable integrity and understanding.

    Another mildly aggrieved party, Jodi Magness, I respect more .. I believe she just got up in the nonsense, and would have done better not to cheer on any aspect of the case.

    This case can turn around and bite a lot of people.

    Shalom,
    Steven Avery

  13. John

    Looking through The Great Betrayal: Fraud in Science by H.F. Judson, I can’t find a single case dealt with as a criminal affair. Not the Piltdown Man Hoax, not anything else. It always seems to be dealt with internally, on an institutional level. Does this express a legal principle of some sort?

  14. SHG

    The choice to handle a matter at the institutional level, rather than seek redress from the district attorney, isn’t a legal principle, but an institutional one.  Much as the complaint about Golb is that his conduct was inappropriate for a scholarly debate, the same can be said of Schiffman’s using his acquaintance with Robert Morganthau, New York County District Attorney, to prosecute.

    Whether the conduct is criminal is a matter of statute.  If there is a law that prohibits specific conduct, then it’s criminal.  Here, Golb’s conduct could have been addressed without pursuing criminal charges, but the choice was otherwise.  The question then becomes whether the conduct violated a statutory prohibition, and that’s the question now.  In order to reach that conclusion, it required the prosecution to stretch the law beyond recognition.  The court should not have allowed it, but the judge did.  Of course, judges aren’t perfect, which is why there are appellate courts.

  15. John

    An “innocent scholar has suffered.” Interesting-Ralph is going to spend four years in jail for his accusations, and Lawrence Schiffman announces he is “appreciative” of the results and now “the field of Dead Sea Scrolls research can get back to its real business.” Talk about weird cases.

  16. Steven Avery

    Hi,

    Scott, well spoken.

    My conjecture on Schiffman, it was more a wink and a nod with the very elderly Morgenthau than some heavy-duty leaning. “Do you think this is a matter your office might handle ?”. And I’m beginning to think Schiffman was pushed and shoved by Cargill, and as the days go by they will both be seen as self-serving fools in this matter.

    And some of the group of lower-level thin-skins doing the cheering have hopes for a civil suit payday, which I am beginning to believe was a primary motivation. Fortunately, the lack of any real damages (as anyone who knows the net scholastic field can explain, and is pointed out by Cargill’s statement that everyone knew) is more of a hindrance in a civil suit than criminal, quite ironically. Although Scott might want to comment or correct, since my law background is Perry Mason.

    Incidentally, I see the home-court advantage here as quite a factor, much like it was used by Elisha Qimron in the BAR case. (See the Houston Law Review article for background.) Everything got tilted, I understand though that the judge was worse than the prosecutor’s office (e.g. in not making a sensible pleas bargain) so I would not be surprised if some of the junior DAs were gagging about this whole enterprise. On their website they have still pics about the international identity theft rings they crack, real crime .. and this case makes them look like the an equine backside.

    Shalom,
    Steven Avery

    Also you have the general problem the lawyers and judges are simply clueless about the internet and scholastic environments.

  17. Steven Avery

    Hi,

    Robert Cargill posted the link to the DA’s office statement:

    “the manhattan da has released their official press release:
    http://www.manhattanda.org/whatsnew/press/2010-09-30c.shtml

    Robert does not appear to want to put my comments through after the first one.
    Here is my response to the above, which he is unlikely to post, so I place it here.

    Cargills’ current comments page is:
    http://robertcargill.com/2010/09/30/dr-golb-found-guilty/#comments

    ======================

    Hi,

    Thanks for the link to the DA statement. That official statement clearly constitutes an attack on Internet anonymity, and, Robert, despite your disclaimers above, clearly they were in fact attacking that right, not just the technical issue of impersonation in l’affaire Schiffman. Note the continual emphasis.

    “cowering in anonymity” .. “mask his true identity” .. ” email aliases” .. “maintain his anonymity”

    The emphasis is that it was the wrong way to “influence and affect debate” and that the nefarious goal was (gasp) that he “promoted the theories of his father”. Why is the DAs office concerned that Golb “criticized the theories” and also “criticized the manner” of the DSS exhibit. Why is this the DA’s concern ?

    So now we have the DAs office to tell us the right ways to debate – forums are not competent to do their own moderation, and we will need an Emily Post DAs Division to run the Internet forums.

    “You harassed me.. ” .. no “you intimidated me” .. no .. you “stalked me” from forum to blog. Welcome to the Brave Net World of Internet Prosecution.

    ===

    Ironically, on their website the DAs office has a picture of their busting a real identity theft ring with fraudulent credit cards and international money laundering. The junior DAs hopefully will see they have been had in prosecuting this as a felony criminal case, even if the elderly Morgenthau does not care.

    Shalom,
    Steven Avery

  18. Mark Twain

    (I hope I won’t go to jail for impersonating Samuel Clemens.) According to the Washington Post, Raphael Golb said he used “irony, satire and parody to expose a plagiarist,” he was “angry the plagiarism accusations were never brought to light,” and “his father’s theory was being smeared online.” In the D.A.’s statement quoted by Steven Avery, all of this is compressed into the concept that Raphael Golb “promoted the theories of his father.” This seems to imply a strange kind of inquisition into Raphael Golb’s mind, in which the government becomes the “moderator” of an academic problem and evaluates motives and morality. I find this rather difficult to understand and I wonder what this guy is going through right now.

  19. Philip King

    Moral of the story: when using a cybernym, make sure you get a proxy server to go with it. It sure worked for “Frank Vance” when he got sued.

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