Five years ago, Raphael Golb took to the Web to criticize scholars who disagreed with his father, an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls.
To do so, Golb used some unconventional methods. He created dozens of fake email accounts under the names of other scholars, and then posted comments under those names in order to embarrass his father's critics -- especially NYU professor Larry Schiffman. At one point, Golb sent emails under Schiffman's name that admitted to plagiarism.
Obviously that's not the best way to advance academic discussion. The people Golb targeted probably could have sued him for defamation, if they wanted to. At the same time, they probably also could have set the record straight without resorting to the courts.
Nonetheless, the authorities got involved and the New York District Attorney's Office charged Golb with identy theft, fraud, and a host of other crimes.
Golb took the case to trial. He argued that the goal of his email messages and other comments was to "satirize the academic debate that surrounds the Dead Sea Scrolls," according to DNAinfo.com. He also said that his public statements were protected by free-speech principles.
A jury disagreed and convicted Golb in November of 2010. He was sentenced to six months in jail, but has remained free pending appeal.
This week, a New York appellate court threw out a charge that Golb attempted to defraud victims of more than $1,000, but upheld the other counts. The appeals judges specifically rejected Golb's argument that his posts were lawful parodies.
"Defendant was not prosecuted for the content of any of the emails, but only for giving the false impression that his victims were the actual authors of the emails," the judges wrote. "The First Amendment protects the right to criticize another person, but it does not permit anyone to give an intentionally false impression that the source of the message is that other person."
But there's a pretty clear problem with that bit of logic: Golb only faced prosecution because of the contents of the emails, which disparaged the people he wrote about. It's impossible to separate the contents from the fake addresses.
That's not the only troubling passage in the court's decision. The judges also rejected Golb's argument that he did not intend to harm anyone in the criminal sense. Golb said that any harm he might have caused was only to the professors' reputation. In other words, he might have defamed the professors, but didn't commit fraud. But the appellate judges ruled that "damage to the careers and livelihoods of the scholars he impersonated" was enough to sustain fraud charges.
The ruling as a whole has some extremely disturbing implications. If, as the decision states, writing a post under a fake name can be a crime, the authorities could theoretically prosecute countless people who post Amazon reviews under fake names, create phony social networking profiles or even parody Twitter accounts.
Golb's lawyer, Ron Kuby, said as much earlier today. "There are hundreds of thousands of examples of people who email or blog under assumed names," Kuby told The New York Post. "Virtually all of the online community can be criminalized at the discretion of the DA," he added.
Kuby has vowed to appeal to the state's highest court.