May 24, 2007 | By Matt Earp

Worrying Developments in the Keith Henson Case

We've been watching with concern the latest turns in the long-running battle between Keith Henson and the Church of Scientology, arising in part due to online criticism of the Scientologists by Henson and others on the alt.religion.scientology newsgroup.

As it stands now, Henson, an engineer, programmer and long time Church of Scientology critic, is being held in a Prescott, Arizona, county jail awaiting extradition to Riverside, California. Henson was convicted in 2001 of misdemeanor "interfering with a religion" for picketing in front of a Scientology "base" in Hemet, CA. The ruling was roundly criticized as inconsistent with Henson's First Amendment rights to criticize Scientology: Henson was not permitted by the judge to offer an explanation of why he was picketing, for example, and one part of the evidence used against him appears to be based on an online joke made on Usenet about actor Tom Cruise and "cruise missiles."

Rather than serve his 180 day sentence, Henson fled to Canada. He applied for political asylum, which was temporarily granted. At the time, EFF issued a press release raising our concerns about the verdict's apparent inconsistency with Henson's right to free speech and the seemingly misleading presentation of online communication.

When Henson was denied permanent asylum, he returned to the United States and was arrested in February of 2007 in Arizona.

Henson is now awaiting extradition to Riverside, California. Friends and family say he is in very poor health, and they are concerned about his safety in the reportedly overcrowded Riverside jails.

EFF's concerns about the original verdict remain, and the sentence given seems overly harsh given that the conviction was for a single, nonviolent misdemeanor as part of protest activity.

Henson's supporters are urging that concerned individuals write to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and urge him to grant a pardon or commutation of Mr. Henson's sentence. Henson's supporters' site gives regular updates on Henson's status and includes an online petition. His wife, Arel Lucas, appeared on Riverside County radio personality Vince Daniels' show on Monday to explain the current situation. The audio for that show is available online.

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