In a case watched closely by civil libertarians, California's high court ruled that a barrage of disparaging e-mails sent to Intel workers by a disgruntled former employee of the company did not constitute trespassing.
The 4-3 decision Monday by the California Supreme Court overturned a lower-court injunction that had kept Kourosh Kenneth Hamidi from e-mailing workers at his former employer.
A lower court had considered Hamidi to be trespassing on the Santa Clara-based chipmaker's servers, just as though somebody were standing on a piece of physical private property. Intel argued that the messages were spam and intruded on its property.
But the majority on the state Supreme Court ruled that the lower court injunction barring him from the activity was violating his First Amendment rights.
"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 in the majority opinion.
The majority's reasoning does not give a legal nod to those sending spam, or unsolicited e-mail, en masse, Werdegar noted.
She also said that Intel's servers were not harmed and that the thousands of Hamidi e-mail recipients were able to request that the e-mails stop, which Hamidi honored. Had that not been the case, Hamidi may have been trespassing, she said.
She added that Intel's chief concern was the content of his e-mails, which are protected speech. Commercial speech, like spam, does not have the same First Amendment protection.
Writing for the three-judge 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, a 56-year-old former Intel engineer, was fired in 1995 after a work-injury dispute, and began sending e-mails complaining of unfair work practices to as many as 30,000 Intel employees at a time.
The company asked him to stop, then sued and won a court order barring him from sending the e-mails. Intel alleged that he was in effect trespassing on private property. The appeals court agreed, ruling that Intel had the same right to police its e-mail system as it would its factories and offices.
Hamidi vowed Monday to resume his e-mails. "I'm going to do it to the max," he said.
Intel spokesman Chuck Mulloy said the company was disappointed and assessing its "options in the event Mr. Hamidi resumes his spamming activity against Intel."
San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and dozens of law professors urged the court to overturn Hamidi's injunction.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the U.S. Internet Service Provider Association and Information Technology Industry Council and others asked the court to side with Intel.
Werdegar made it clear that the majority was not inviting spam. Internet service providers, she wrote, could sue for trespassing "upon evidence that the vast quantities of mail sent by spammers both overburdened the ISP's own computers and made the entire computer system harder to use for recipients, including ISP customers."
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