A previously covert member of a controversial web-based group called Anonymous is headed for Boston Municipal Court this week to face misdemeanor harassment charges for his alleged role in anti-Church of Scientology demonstrations.
In an unusual case pitting First Amendment free-speech protections against an individual's right to practice religion without harassment, Anonymous member Gregg Housh is slated to be arraigned on April 30.
Housh, already on probation in federal court, is charged with unlawfully participating in a series of protests between January and March outside Scientology headquarters on Beacon Street in Boston's Back Bay.
According to an application for complaint filed by Boston attorney Michael J. McCormack of The McCormack Firm, Housh, "along with a group of [mostly college-aged] protestors have been harassing members of the Church of Scientology. The group, of which the defendant appears to be one of the leaders, has left leaflets at the church of a disturbing nature."
As a result of Housh's alleged threats to destroy the church and his staging of multiple demonstrations, the complaint states, Scientology members "fear for their well-being."
Housh and other members of the group, who conceal their identity by wearing plastic Guy Fawkes masks modeled after those worn in the 2005 film "V for Vendetta," reportedly began protesting when the church took legal steps in January to prevent them from running clips of a Tom Cruise Scientology video on YouTube.
"It seems like a pretty ridiculous charge, and I am very surprised that it's going forward," says Housh's Braintree lawyer, Michael D. Dlott. "I spoke to a police officer who was at each of the rallies, and his take on it was that the harassment charge wouldn't hold up, and my feeling is that this is just a free speech/right to assembly issue."
While their masks have prevented other Anonymous members from being similarly charged, Dlott says it was his client's trip to Boston City Hall that blew his cover.
"The Church of Scientology is known to be litigious, and that's part of the reason why this group wears masks," Dlott says. "But because [Housh] was the one who filed the papers necessary to conduct the demonstration, the [church] went downtown, got his name and filed the charges against him."
Dlott, who represented Housh at an April 16 BMC clerk-magistrate hearing, says a church request to bring a trespass charge against his client was denied.
Boston attorney Marc L. LaCasse of The McCormack Firm, representing the church along with McCormack, says his research revealed that the wearing of masks as part of a protest designed to harass is not the kind of behavior protected by free speech.
"The church members and administrators feel very threatened by the conduct of the Anonymous protestors and believed there was sufficient grounds to seek a criminal complaint," LaCasse says. "The more you learn about this group Anonymous, the more you'll see that they're really just a bunch of computer hackers and hooligans who are out to intimidate, and to them it's all just a big giant prank."
When reached for comment prior to the arraignment, Jake Wark, a spokesman for Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, says the case came to prosecutors as a result of a private complaint from the church and not a police investigation.
"A municipal court clerk determined that there was probable cause to issue a complaint, and at this point we will review the facts as we do every case arising out of a clerk's hearing," says Wark." What we will do now is scrutinize the circumstances of the case and act appropriately in a court of law."
Wark disputes the notion that the case could somehow chill free speech.
"Suffolk County and Boston in particular have a long tradition of peaceful protests, and we commend the spirit of that protest, so long has as it does not cross the lines into criminal behavior," he says.
Several attorneys interviewed by Lawyers Weekly are questioning the validity of the charges against Housh.
"There is no way this case belongs in a criminal courtroom," says one defense lawyer who requested anonymity of the do-not-quote-me kind. "I'm glad I don't have to figure out how to get rid of it, but this case ought to be dismissed."
As Dlott tries to arrive at such a result, he acknowledges that the new charge has already affected Housh's probation status in federal court.
"The day they filed this complaint was scheduled to be the last day of his probation on a federal conviction he had for pirating software," Dlott explains. "He served three months [in prison] and was on his last day of probation when they filed the complaint, but as a result of this, the federal probation has been extended."