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.