Intel's Attempt to Muzzle Ex-Worker's E-Mails Violates First Amendment, ACLU Says

May 12, 2000
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

SAN FRANCISCO -- In a case with important ramifications for workers' rights and for the right of ordinary people to communicate by e-mail, the American Civil Liberties Union today filed a friend-of-the-court brief endorsing the right of Ken Hamidi, a former Intel employee, to air his grievances with the company by sending e-mails to his former co-workers using their work e-mail addresses. 

The ACLU said Hamidi's messages were not "spam" -- he sent only six e-mails over a two-year period -- and that corporate giant Intel's actions were a heavy-handed attempt to silence a critic, not an effort to prevent overload on its e-mail system. 

"This case is about the right of a former employee to criticize a large and powerful corporation," said Ann Brick, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, which filed the brief with the ACLU national office. 

"E-mail is the electronic version of a protestor's picket sign and leaflet," Brick said. "It has quickly become the preferred means of communication for millions of people across the country and around the world. The First Amendment protects Hamidi's right to use e-mail to reach his intended audience at the place where that audience can best be found." 

Frustrated at not being able to block Hamidi's e-mails technologically, Intel went to court in October 1998 and asked for an injunction. It claimed the e-mails were "trespassing" on its equipment. In June of last year the court issued an order prohibiting Hamidi from sending unsolicited e-mails to addresses on Intel's computer system. 

All in all, Hamidi sent only six e-mails to Intel employees over approximately a two-year period. He told recipients that he would remove them from his mailing list upon request-a pledge which, according to documents in the case, he has honored. 

The ACLU brief, filed with the Third District Court of Appeal in Sacramento, contends that the injunction violates the First Amendment and that Intel's "trespass" theory does not apply in a situation like this one. 

The brief argues that there can be no liability under the doctrine of trespass to personal property because the e-mails caused no damage to or disruption of Intel's e-mail system. The First Amendment prohibits an injunction that is based solely on Intel's objection to the content of Hamidi's messages. 

"The ancient tort of 'trespass to personal property' was never intended to be used as a tool to muzzle free speech," said Chris Hansen, an attorney with the national ACLU. "Both the United States Supreme Court and the California Supreme Court have been very clear in saying that state tort laws may not be employed as a smokescreen for silencing those with whom we disagree. That is what is happening here." 

Arguments in the case are not expected until late winter. A copy of the brief is available online at:
http://www.aclunc.org/expression/intel-brief.html 

 

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