CA Supreme Court Deciding E-mail Spam Free Speech Case

April 3, 2003 ( - The California Supreme Court is set to decide if a former employee's spam e-mail to 30,000 Intel Corp' workers was Constitutionally protected free speech or trespassing.

>On one side of the aisle stand attorneys for the former Intel engineer, Ken Hamidi.   Their argument is that not allowing the distribution of the mass e-mails sets a slippery slope upon which companies can stifle free speech, according to a Reuters report.

>However, on the other side, lawyers for the microchip processor contend the company is not committing a First amendment violation.   Instead, they argue Intel’s internal e-mail system is private property, and a deluge of unwanted e-mails amounts to trespassing.

>Hamidi’s lawyers said their client’s e-mails did not constitute trespassing because Intel did not show there was damage to the property as a result, such as a breakdown in the computer system.   “The only alleged damage they claim was that it distracted people,” co-defense attorney Olson said. “If the court rules in favor of Intel every time a large company doesn’t like the content of what someone says in an e-mail they’re going to try to get an injunction.”

Came To Be

This imbroglio erupted following the 1995 dismissal of Hamidi and the subsequent barrage of anti-Intel e-mail messages, beginning in 1996, disseminated by the former employee over a two-year span.   Intel, frowning upon the action, sued for trespass to chattel, company computers in this instance. A Sacramento County Superior Court trial judge eventually issued an injunction against Hamidi, prohibiting him from e-mailing Intel employees.

>Fast-forward seven years and two lower court rulings later, both finding Intel could legally prohibit Hamidi from flooding Intel workers with e-mails.   These decisions sent shockwaves through the civil liberties community, which has now rallied around the case as a major test for Internet freedom of speech.   Hamidi’s lawyers appealed the two rulings and now the case sits before the state High Court.

>As with many free speech issues, the case has generated widespread interest, predictably along corporate party lines.   On the side of Intel eight friend of the court petitions have been filed, including the US Chamber of Commerce and eBay Inc.   However, to Hamidi’s support have come the American Civil Liberties Union and the Service Employees International Union.

Legal Observations

The California Supreme Court appears headed for a 4-3 split on the issue, however what is still in doubt is whose locker room will have the champagne celebration, according to a report by The Recorder.

While three justices appeared to side with Intel, three others were apparently leaning toward Hamidi. The swing vote, who has not indicated a particular leaning, is Justice Carlos Moreno.

Legal observers will know soon enough.   A d ecision in Intel Corp. v. Hamidi, S103781 is expected to be handed down within 90 days.