ALBANY, N.Y. – New York’s highest court on Tuesday upheld a man’s convictions for criminal impersonation and forgery for using Internet aliases to damage reputations, opening a portal for other prosecutions in the computer age.
The Court of Appeals upheld 19 misdemeanour charges against Raphael Golb, who used online pseudonyms to mock scholars in an academic debate about the Dead Sea Scrolls. The judges concluded that many of Golb’s emails were “more than a prank intended to cause temporary embarrassment” and therefore rose to the misdemeanour charges.
“He acted with intent to do real harm,” Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam wrote. The criminal impersonation statute has been traditionally applied in cases of tangible injury, but it was written broadly enough to include reputational harm, she wrote.
In a sharply worded dissent, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said the convictions should be thrown out and that the top court was giving New York prosecutors “powers they should not have to determine what speech should and should not be penalized.” Its new standard amounts to criminal libel, something the U.S. Supreme Court rejected in the 1960s and New York repealed decades ago, he wrote.
Golb, an attorney and writer, disguised his identity in email messages and blog posts from 2006 to 2009 to discredit detractors of his father, a University of Chicago professor, in a dispute over the scrolls’ origins.
In emails, Golb impersonated some scholars who subscribe to the Qumran-Sectarian theory. It posits that the more than 2,000-year-old documents, found in the 1940s in what is now Israel and containing the earliest known versions of portions of the Hebrew Bible, were the writings of a sect known as the Essenes.
His father, Norman Golb, maintains the evidence, including the various texts and handwritings among the scrolls, indicate they were brought to the caves at Qumran for safekeeping from Jerusalem during a siege by Roman troops.
A series of museum exhibits endorsing the other view prompted Raphael Golb to push the online campaign against what he has called “propagandists for a faith-based theory.”
The court upheld 19 charges, but it dismissed 10 other counts: aggravated harassment, unauthorized computer use, criminal impersonation and identity theft, the sole felony.
Judges Robert Smith, Victoria Graffeo, Susan Read, Eugene Pigott Jr. and Jenny Rivera agreed with Abdus-Salaam.
Golb was originally sentenced to six months in jail and five years on probation. He remained free on bail during appeals. With the felony conviction thrown out, he will need to be resentenced.
Defence attorney Ronald Kuby said the New York court resurrected criminal libel, “a major federal constitutional issue” that should go to the U.S. Supreme Court. He said they’ll decide whether to appeal after the resentencing.
The Manhattan district attorney’s office, which prosecuted Golb, declined to comment Tuesday.