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Sneak attack on Internet freedom of speech

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In the Chinese classic The Thirty-Six Stratagems, the eighth strategy reads, "Openly repair the gallery roads, but sneak through the passage of Chencang." That is to say, set a decoy by appearing to attack along an obvious path while sneaking up on the enemy from a less obvious route. While many pay close attention to the obvious and steady decline of American democracy into corporate fascism, more subtle and devious tactics go virtually unnoticed. A little-known, yet terrifying, court case threatens to pave the way to a strangling of the freedom of dissent we still have. It has the potential to set a dangerous precedent for Internet free speech, without a single high-profile law being passed in Congress and without a single word of debate, either congressional or in public.

The lawsuits that become landmark cases generally start as small disputes that no one aside from those immediately involved pay attention to. They begin as something as simple as public school students wearing black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War, as in the case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. That case made it all the way from the Des Moines School Board to the U.S. Supreme Court, which handed down a decision on February 24, 1969. In that case, the Supreme Court upheld the First Amendment right of children on a public school campus to peacefully protest, but the political climate as well as the Supreme Court has changed since 1969. The First Amendment continues to undergo attack, and it is showing undeniable signs of buckling under the pressure.

The Case

Our story begins, appropriately enough, with an up-and-coming self-styled New Age "guru" named Eric Pepin. Based on what can be gleaned from his websites and self-promotion, he would seem to be little more than a snake-oil salesman preying on gullible people by selling enlightenment through a proprietary form of meditation and a pill called Magneurol6-S that, so he claims, enhances brain function and heightens paranormal experience. His promotional material states that his fee-based "Higher Balance" courses will impart secret, mystical knowledge, profound spiritual experience and modern tools for advanced awareness. In other words, he seems to be nothing more than a hustler making a easy buck on pseudo-spirituality.

It is a matter of public record, reported in several news articles (The Oregonian) that Pepin was accused by a former employee of criminal sexual misconduct. The accuser claimed he was only 17 when Pepin forced him into sexual relations, an act Pepin allegedly referred to as "crossing the abyss." The story of the New Age guru earning the trust of followers, then using that trust to manipulate those followers into feeding an insatiable lust is hardly new. Pepin even admitted to his voracious sexual appetites in testimony during his hearing, saying that he has had sexual relations with most of his 11 employees. Whether priest, minister, politician, Boy Scout troop leader, teacher, counselor, or psychologist, the authoritarian dynamic of exploitation is unnervingly and disturbingly familiar

It is also a matter of public record that Pepin was found "not guilty" which, it should be noted, does not mean that the alleged sexual misconduct did not occur. It simply means that the evidence did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the victim was underage at the time the events occurred. There was no doubt that they occurred because there was a videotape. Unfortunately, the tape was not date stamped and the victim turned 18 before the case came to court. After the acquittal, Pepin hired attorneys to have the record expunged. Pepin appears to know well how to use the legal system to cover his tracks. Sound familiar? It should. It happens all the time in powerful and wealthy circles, and Pepin has shown that he can use the tricks like a pro.

Now, with his criminal record expunged - never mind that it was clear that the incidents occurred - Pepin has filed suit against an alternative media website for a discussion of his case in the public forum associated with that site. That fact - that such cases are even being heard by a court - is chilling. A case like this, if it makes it to the Supreme Court, could become a landmark case. A Supreme Court ruling in such a case could, potentially, put an end to free and open discussion on the Internet.

The name of the suit is HIGHER BALANCE, LLC, an Oregon Limited Liability Company, dba HIGHER BALANCE INSTITUTE, Plaintiff The Higher Balance Institute v. QUANTUM FUTURE GROUP, INC, a California corporation, and LAURA KNIGHT- JADCZYK, Defendants. It was filed over comments made on the public forum that is part of Signs of the Times, an alternative news aggregation and commentary website. A forum thread entitled, "Eric Pepin - Higher Balance Institute -- Discussion" was begun by an anonymous poster regarding the validity of the claims made by Pepin.
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Eventually, following a generally unremarkable series of posts, the fact that Pepin had been accused of statutory rape, and the contents of articles that covered the details of the accusation and subsequent trial, were posted on the thread. After reviewing this information, Laura Knight-Jadczyk, an administrator of the site, made the statement, "It's really starting to look like this Eric Pepin and his Higher Balance Institute may be merely COINTELPRO and a front for pedophilia."

The suit alleges that this comment made by Knight-Jadczyk and others in the user discussion forum of the Signs of the Times news site concerning Pepin has caused his Higher Balance Institute to lose a pretty sizable chunk of change in snake-oil sales and loss of reputation. In fact, it claims over $1 million in economic damages. Apparently there is quite a bit of money to be made in his line of work. Adding the special and general damages, the total sought is nearly $4.5 million. All of this because a few people dared discuss articles about Pepin that had been published in publicly available media sources.

The statement would hardly seem actionable when one considers that it was based directly on information provided in articles printed in Pepin's home state of Oregon following his trial, and when one considers the fact that what was said may actually be accurate. True, Pepin was found "not guilty" on all counts. According to Pepin, that is proof that the acts in question were never committed never mind the unequivocal statements of the prosecutor and judge, quoted in the news reports, that they did occur. Or at least, he seems to believe, that verdict should serve as a de facto gag order keeping anyone from ever mentioning the subject in public again. But that is not what "not guilty" means in a court of law.

According to a May 23, 2007 article in The Oregonian, "A Washington County Circuit judge called the leader of a metaphysical Internet sales company manipulative and controlling and his testimony unbelievable, even as he acquitted him today of charges that he had sex with an underage boy." It goes on to quote Judge Steven L. Price as saying it was "probable that the conduct alleged in all counts occurred," but he wasn't convinced beyond a reasonable doubt.

This case was brought before Judge Price after a grand jury agreed that the case had merit. Pepin's attorneys were clever, though. They realized that in cases of statutory rape, proof beyond a reasonable doubt is very hard to come by. It is usually a case of he said/she said or, in the case of Pepin, he said/he said. A jury may feel disposed to find the accused guilty in such a case, but a judge would not without very substantial evidence of a specific kind. This is, incidentally, a legal maneuver sometimes used by those who would later gain notoriety as so-called "serial killers." For example, Gary Heidnik who, charged with kidnapping, rape, false imprisonment, unlawful restraint, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, interfering with the custody of a committed person and reckless endangerment, waived his right to a jury. Because the judge determined the witness too "retarded" to testify, Heidnik got off with only a couple of misdemeanors.
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A judge would require what amounts to a smoking gun. The plaintiff nearly had one with the evidence of the video tape of a sex orgy presented as spiritual practice was produced. Why a self-proclaimed guru would be videotaping an allegedly "spiritual" orgy I leave to the reader's imagination. Unfortunately, as mentioned, the video tape did not have any sort of date stamp, so there was no "smoking-gun" proof that it was taken when the boy was still 17 years old, merely evidence that Pepin is a kinky sexual predator. So, Pepin waived his right to trial by jury, presented himself to a judge - about whom we know nothing - and found himself a free man.

To the casual observer, this case could easily look like an easy one to ignore, just like with most other suits that eventually lead to landmark decisions. After all, a cursory Internet search will reveal that Laura Knight-Jadczyk is involved in some things that might sound strange herself, namely the "Cassiopaean Experiment", in which she claims to communicate with a group of beings that call themselves the Cassiopaeans. That same search will also turn up accusations that Ms. Knight-Jadczyk is running a cult and is some sort of New Age guru, herself!

A recent article in Willamette Week Online titled A New-Age Smackdown and Free Speech for Bloggers even described sott.net as a New Age alternative news website. Personally, I don't see it, though I would definitely accent the alternative part. The folks at SOTT cover more political, psychological and scientific territory than than a room full of doctoral candidates. In the 80's I was tangentially involved in the New Age movement, meaning that I found it interesting, not that I ever contributed anything to it. Having read through sott.net, this has nothing to do with New Age thought. I think many of the New Agers I've known would find the site fairly horrifying as it takes a decidedly up-front and realistic position that things are not going well in the world, are only getting worse, and does not advocate anything like the position that thinking "nice" thoughts will turn things around.

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I am a concerned citizen. I've been around long enough and have seen enough to realize that we are undeniably at a crossroad both culturally here in the U.S. and as a species. Has there ever been a time in human history of such blatant disregard (more...)
 

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Sneak attack on Internet freedom of speech