Cyberbully Is Found Guilty on Multiple Counts in Dead Sea Scrolls Case

September 30, 2010

A professor's adult son was convicted in a New York State court of 30 criminal charges on Thursday for using online aliases to try to harass and discredit scholars whom his father opposed in a bitter debate over the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The jury found Raphael H. Golb, the 50-year-old son of the prominent religious-studies scholar Norman Golb of the University of Chicago, guilty all but one of the 31 counts against him, according to an Associated Press report. It convicted him of forgery, harassment, and identity theft in connection with a sustained electronic campaign in which he impersonated five people and used about 70 phony e-mail accounts to harass and try to damage the reputations of scholars.

Of particular note to academics who were following the case, the jurors rejected a defense lawyer's argument that the damaging statements that Raphael Golb had made about others under assumed names amounted to parody or irony intended to expose what he saw as scholarly lies, and thus were protected under the First Amendment.

"This is an important case for scholars because so much today is done online, and the laws are just now catching up with the technology," said Robert R. Cargill, an adjunct assistant professor of Near Eastern languages and cultures at the University of California at Los Angeles, who was anonymously attacked by Raphael Golb and played a central role in exposing him.

"The verdict," Mr. Cargill said, "should be a reminder that you simply cannot just say whatever you want behind a supposed veil of anonymity and get away with it. There is always someone watching online."

Parody vs. Crime

Mr. Golb's lawyer, David Breitbart, did not return calls seeking comment.

During the trial, in Manhattan, Mr. Breitbart had argued that his client had essentially engaged in an elaborate intellectual prank, and had done nothing criminal, in sending out e-mails under fake names and under an e-mail address falsely attached to Lawrence H. Schiffman, a professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University whom Raphael Golb had accused of plagiarizing his father's work.

While Mr. Golb, himself a lawyer, sought to use his trial to air the various accusations he had brought against scholars he saw as his father's detractors, the prosecution focused on hammering home the message that Mr. Golb, who was arrested last year, had carried out criminal acts that did real damage to his victims.

"This case is not about whether Dr. Schiffman plagiarized Dr. Golb. It is about how you can't impersonate anyone," John Bandler, an assistant district attorney, told jurors on Thursday during his closing arguments.

A New York University spokesman issued a statement Thursday in which Mr. Schiffman expressed gratitude for the verdict and said, "It is tragic that academic debate was replaced by cybercrime and identity theft as a means of advancing a particular scholarly point of view."

"Let us hope," Mr. Schiffman's statement said, "that the field of Dead Sea Scrolls research can get back to its real business—interpreting the ancient scrolls and explaining their significance for the history of Judaism and the background of early Christianity."

Jodi Magness, a professor of early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who was also among Raphael Golb's victims, said on Thursday, "I think that justice has been served, and I think the decision sends a signal that this kind of cyberbullying will not be tolerated."

Mr. Golb, she said, had conducted "smear campaigns" using "vicious anonymous attacks on scholars' academic reputations," and "it is almost impossible to assess how much damage was done."

"I am a relatively well-established scholar," Ms. Magness said, "but these attacks were also conducted against more junior scholars who were more vulnerable."