In a decision experts say may impact corporate monitoring and censorship of e-mail, the California Supreme Court has ruled against Intel and its attempts to charge a former employee with trespassing for sending critical messages to other employees at the company.
In a 4-3 ruling, the court said a lower court erred when it granted Intel an injunction in 1998 that barred Kourosh Kenneth “Ken” Hamidi from sending messages criticizing the chipmaker’s employment practices.
Hamidi, a former Intel engineer and Iranian immigrant fired by Intel in 1996 after a dispute over a car accident, said on a Web page devoted to the case that he had been “treated worse than a man in a communist country like China” during his battle with the chipmaker, which he described as “the enemy of free speech.”
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Intel spokesperson Chuck Molloy told the E-Commerce Times that the company has never tried to stop Hamidi from expressing his views on his dismissal.
“This has never been about his opinions, but rather about what we think is our property boundaries,” Molloy said, adding that no decision has been made about whether or not to pursue the case further.
Hamidi, who has long pledged to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary, said he will resume his e-mail campaign now that the injunction has been shot down.
Intel did not claim Hamidi’s messages were harming its network or overloading its servers. The company said only that the content was objectionable and that employee time was being lost in reading the missives, which were sent to as many as 29,000 Intel workers worldwide on up to six different occasions.
The court noted that the Hamidi case differs from previous cases on which courts have ruled, including a dispute between eBay and Bidder’s Edge, because those cases largely involved automated search or message systems, rather than messages generated by invdividuals.
Although Hamidi claimed victory, broader impacts of the case are debatable. The court intentionally tailored its decision to narrowly protect the type of speech Hamidi was conducting, meaning the precedent likely will not prove useful as a weapon against spam or other mass e-mailings.
“Though Hamidi sent thousands of copies of the same message on six occasions over 21 months, that number is minuscule compared to the amounts of mail sent by commercial operations,” the court said.
“The boundaries of public and private property in terms of the Internet have not yet been fully figured out,” said Peter Mei, an attorney in the Silicon Valley office of law firm Lyon & Lyon “It’s probably going to take a ruling from the highest court at some point to settle that question with any finality.”
Further complicating analysis of the decision is the strongly worded dissent, in which three judges argued the majority failed to recognize that the e-mails were the digital equivalent of someone sneaking into a corporate mailroom and dropping thousands of leaflets to be delivered to workers.