In a free-speech case watched closely by civil libertarians, California’s high court OK’d a barrage of eMail messages sent by a fired Intel Corp. worker. Even though the messages disparaged his former employer, they did not trespass on the company’s servers, the court decided.
The ruling could have significant implications for school districts and other organizations, stripping them of a potential legal strategy in the fight against unwanted eMail.
In a 4-3 decision issued June 30, the California Supreme Court overturned a lower-court injunction barring Kourosh Kenneth Hamidi from sending eMail to his former colleagues. Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel had sought the injunction, arguing that Hamidi was trespassing on its computer servers just as though he were intruding on private property.
“He no more invaded Intel’s property than does a protester holding a sign or shouting through a bullhorn outside corporate headquarters, posting a letter through the mail, or telephoning to complain of a corporate practice,” Justice Kathryn Werdegar wrote for the high court’s majority.
The majority’s reasoning does not give a legal nod to those sending spam, or unsolicited eMail, en masse, the judge noted.
Werdegar also said Intel’s servers were not harmed by the computer messages and the thousands of recipients were able to ask that the eMails stop, a request Hamidi honored. Had that not been the case, Hamidi might have been trespassing, she said.
She added that Intel’s chief concern was the content of his eMails, which are protected speech. Commercial speech, like spam, does not have the same First Amendment protection.
Writing for the minority, Justice Richard Mosk said: “Intel should not be helpless in the face of repeated and threatened abuse and contamination of its private computer system.”
Hamidi, 56, was fired from his engineering job in 1995 after a work-injury dispute and began sending eMail messages complaining of unfair work practices to as many as 30,000 Intel employees at a time. In his messages, he urged employees to visit a web site he created that was critical of Intel.