Judgment may Boomerang

In a surprising turn of events, two Scientologists have been exonerated in a legal proceeding in Basel. The judgment, however, could turn out to be a boomerang.

Tages-Anzeiger, October 23, 1999
By Hugo Stamm

The new law in Basel-City Canton which prohibits deceptive advertising on public land has not passed its baptism by fire. The solitary judge in the Basel Criminal Court exonerated two Scientologists on formal grounds. They had repeatedly accosted pedestrians in an aggressive manner and were fined 500 franks, which they then appealed.

But the Scientologists will have to accept the exoneration with a grain of salt. In the basis of his judgment, the judge stated that the distribution of personality tests by Scientologists is part of a comprehensive sales strategy, which makes it commercial activity. The goal of their operation consists of selling astronomically expensive course and materials, as the one accused had demonstrated. He had stated that he had paid out about 15,000 franks [over $10,000] for such "religious services."

Because of that, the judge did not rate the advertising as an idealist or religious activity, but as commercial. Therefore the new law could not be applied; the Scientologists have to be charged for unfair [commercial] competition. But because the sect is using everything it has to look like a church, the exoneration may hurt more than help. Now their advertising can be assessed as commercial activity, and the "missionaries" have to count on being prosecuted for unfair competition, which carries heavier penalties. Scientologists may now be charged everywhere

The judge came to his decision mainly for official reasons. In his complaint, the accuser had not been precise enough in the the facts of the matter as required by law; he had not listed deceptive and unfair advertising on his specifications, instead these arguments first appeared at the hearings.

Because of this, the defense criticized that the principle of bringing charges had been violated because he had not been able to prepare for the new accusations. The judge agreed with him and stated that the law was not applicable in the case. But he indicated that the Scientologists would have had to reckon with conviction if they would have been charged with unfair competition. This means that now sect members may be charged all over Switzerland, not just in Basel.

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