New York’s highest court on Tuesday will consider whether to overturn convictions in the Internet impersonation case of a man who argues that mocking scholars in an academic debate about the Dead Sea Scrolls was free speech protected by the First Amendment.
Raphael Golb, an attorney and writer, was convicted of identity theft and other charges for disguising his identity in email messages and blog posts between 2006 and 2009 to discredit detractors of his father, Norman Golb, in a disagreement over the scrolls’ origins.
The scrolls are more than 2,000 years old and were founded in the 1940s in what is now Israel. The documents contain the earliest known versions of the Bible.
Many scholars, including New York University Judaic studies chairman Lawrence Schiffman, hold that the texts were assembled by a sect known as the Essenes. Others, including Norman Golb, a University of Chicago historian and professor, and Raphael’s father, argue the writings were the work of Jewish groups and communities, collected from libraries and hidden in caves near Qumran to protect them from a Roman invasion around 70 A.D.
Raphael’s lawyer Ronald Kolby argues that the trial judge’s jury instructions failed to protect Raphael’s rights to free speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution. Kolby said this led to his client’s convictions in court “precisely because his online impersonations called attention to, condemned and mocked alleged wrongdoing on the part of the Scrollmonopolists and exhibitors.”
The younger Golb, 54, was sentenced to six months in prison and five years’ probation for waging an Internet campaign against his father’s academic rivals, including sending emails under a rival professor’s name.
Raphael Golb, a literature scholar and a real estate lawyer who holds a Harvard Ph.D. and a law degree from New York University, created more than 80 online alias to advance his father’s view about the origins of the Dead Sea Scrolls against what he saw as a concerted effort to exclude them, and was convicted of committing a crime along the way.
Schiffman, a widely published authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls, became the prime target of Raphael’s online efforts.
Golb used a New York University computer to create an email account in Schiffman’s name to send alleged confessions by Schiffman of plagiarizing Professor Norman Golb’s work years earlier.
“This has nothing to do with scholarly debate,” said Schiffman.
“Fraud, impersonation and harassment are criminal matters,” he continued.
“This was actually designed to literally end my career,” said Schiffman.
Kuby told The Associated Press that online satire, criticism and blogging, either anonymously or behind pseudonyms, are widespread.
“The underlying issue is: Can you criminalize these Internet impersonations as fraud when there’s no financial benefit or tangible property associated with it?” argued Kuby.
A midlevel court threw out one conviction but affirmed 29 others and concluded that the intended harm to scholars fell within the definition of injury and was not protected free speech. Golb was sentenced, but has remained free on bail during appeals. Other convictions included criminal impersonation, aggravated harassment, forgery and unauthorized use of a computer.
In their brief to the Court of Appeals, Manhattan prosecutors cited Golb’s “relentless impersonation and harassment,” sending emails under aliases to museum administrators, academics and reporters, and eventually impersonating his father’s critics online.
Golb acknowledged during his trial that he wrote the messages. He called his messages “satire, irony, parody,” and said he never intended for anyone to believe Schiffman actually sent them.
Assistant District Attorney Vincent Rivellese wrote that the trial judge communicated the law properly while ensuring it did not infringe on Golb’s constitutional rights.
“The court was careful to ensure that the jury would not convict the defendant for parody, satire, or academic debate, but rather for engaging in fraudulent misrepresentations regarding his identity,” Rivellese wrote.
A Court of Appeals ruling in the case is expected next month.
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