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For the first time in the United States, the use of satirical and pseudonymous emails and blogs to “stir up controversy” has been criminalized as a “fraudulent scheme to influence a debate.”

Background:

In January, 1993, Dr. Avi Katzman, a well-known Israeli journalist and professor, accused Dr. Lawrence Schiffman of New York University of adopting, without appropriately crediting his source, portions of the work of University of Chicago historian Norman Golb (see Haaretz, Musaf, p. 50, Jan. 29, 1993).  Further allegations concerning Schiffman were published the following year, in Norman Golb’s book Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The charges were ignored at NYU, including during the process that led to Schiffman’s appointment as chairman of the university’s Jewish Studies department.  Dr. Schiffman never published any response or retraction concerning the allegations.

Schiffman has lectured at many Dead Sea Scroll “science” museum exhibits where Golb and other dissenting voices have been excluded, and has served as a consultant in connection with the production of several of the exhibits.

In August, 2008, in the context of an Internet campaign (see here for sample articles) challenging the exclusionary “politics” and propaganda engaged in by associates of the Dead Sea Scrolls monopoly group, Raphael Golb, using the public-access computers at NYU’s Bobst library, gave a detailed account of the charges concerning Dr. Schiffman in several pseudonymous blogs (see, e.g., here), and dramatized the issue by sending out a series of brief epistolary “confessions” from a newly minted email address, larry.schiffman@gmail.com.  Among other statements manifestly poking fun at Dr. Schiffman and depicting him as a practitioner of academic politics, the emails mockingly described the alleged plagiarism as a “minor failing,” declared that “my career is at stake,” and insisted that “if I had given credit to this man, I would have been banned from conferences around the world.”

Six months later, pursuant to a criminal complaint filed by Dr. Schiffman and after a costly governmental investigation of the Dead Sea Scrolls controversy, Raphael Golb was arrested and charged with numerous counts of “identity theft,” “criminal impersonation,” “forgery,” “harassment,” and “unauthorized access to a computer,” all related to his blogging and email campaign.

After a trial presided over by Judge Carol Berkman — to whom the case was assigned pursuant to the prosecution’s specific request: cf. the “random selection” requirement set forth in Rule 200.11(c) of the New York Criminal Courts — Raphael Golb was convicted and sentenced to six months of prison at Rikers Island.  Judge Berkman had ruled that “neither good faith nor truth is a defense to any of the crimes charged,” and instructed the jury to ignore the “issues of freedom of speech under the First Amendment”; she explained at sentencing that Raphael Golb’s “criminal intent… brought [his] parody over the line.”

During the course of the trial, a confidential letter of Aug. 29, 2008, entitled “Response to Internet Accusations” and submitted by Dr. Schiffman to prosecutors and to NYU officials, became a public document.  The text had been withheld from Raphael Golb and his attorneys until the eve of trial.  In it, Schiffman denied that he had ever previously been accused of plagiarism by Avi Katzman, complained that he had been “portrayed” as admitting to plagiarism, and presented the new Internet accusations as a “sordid attempt to encourage acceptance of [Norman] Golb’s theories.”  Shortly after Raphael Golb was sentenced, Norman Golb responded to some of the more noteworthy statements contained in this document in an article published on the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute website.

Approximately six weeks later, in January 2009, Dr. Schiffman left his position at NYU and was appointed Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies at Yeshiva University.  Dr. Schiffman has not (or has not publicly) replied to Norman Golb’s article, and it is unknown whether his departure from NYU is connected in any way with the article, with the plagiarism allegations, or with the trial of Raphael Golb.

After three years of appellate litigation, the case is currently awaiting review by the New York Court of Appeals in Albany.  Judge Carol Berkman retired from the New York Criminal Court at the end of 2012.  Former District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who oversaw the arrest and indictment of Raphael Golb, continues to serve as chairman of the Museum of Jewish Heritage.

The term Pseudepigrapha (Greek, “falsely attributed”) was given to Jewish writings of the Second Temple period, which were attributed to authors who did not actually write them… 

2 Comments
  1. Justice Clarence Thomas (Ha!) permalink

    Thanks for doing all of this work. I read most of the material here and it looks to me as if Golb had criminal intent and that the impersonation is not protected speech. Six months seems harsh, though. And all respect for providing everything to your readers.

    • With all due respect to Justice Thomas, it is perhaps not entirely clear why he has seen fit to parenthetically append the exclamation “Ha” to his name; and one might have hoped he would explain in what the “criminality” of the alleged “intent” consists–i.e., the nature of the legal premises underlying the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt “looks to me as if…”

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