Computer giant Intel lost a major lawsuit against a fired employee who sent email protest letters to thousands of his former colleagues, in a court decision that experts say is a major victory for free speech and workers' rights.
The California Supreme Court decision last month marks the end of a five-year battle between Intel, the world's largest semiconductor manufacturer and Kourosh (Ken) Hamidi, a 56-year-old engineer, who was let go by the company after nine years of service.
"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 on behalf of the judges who ruled in his favor.
Hamidi, who immigrated to California from Iran in 1978, organized a group called Former and Current Employees or FACE Intel (www.faceintel.com), soon after being fired in 1995. The organization claims that Intel's demands on its employees created health problems, stress on families, and even suicide. Using a company email list that he had received from an anonymous source, Hamidi sent six emails to between 8,000 and 35,000 Intel employees, detailing what he claimed were Intel's abusive practices.
Among the practices objected to by Hamidi and FACE Intel were: forced overtime, a ranking system used to routinely winnow the ranks of employees, discrimination against older workers, and unhealthy conditions in the company's fabrication facilities.
In response, Intel first tried to block the emails, then sued Hamidi. Two lower courts ruled in favor of the company. But Hamidi, who now had been forced into bankruptcy and was struggling to support his family of four on odd jobs and disability payments, refused to abandon the case.
Said the chagrined Hamidi: "I worked extremely hard and achieved the 'American Dream'. I was proud of being privileged with my constitutionally guaranteed freedoms as an American citizen ... such as freedom of speech. I lost all of the material side of my 'American Dream' only because I stood up and fought for rights that were taken away from me by Intel."
In its lawsuit, Intel claimed the letters to its employees constituted a "trespass to chattels." Hamidi's lawyers countered that the emails were the equivalent of "peaceful pamphleteering," a form of communication protected from court interference by the First Amendment.
The reference to "chattels" -- which means property -- speaks volumes about Intel's attitudes towards its employees but also significantly for what it says about the law. The reference reveals the twisted feudal legal roots that continue to plague the rights of workers.
Since Intel could not show that Hamidi's emails had actually harmed its computer systems, the "trespass to chattels" claimed by the company could only be the "loss of productivity" caused by the time employees (the "chattels") spent reading the emails.
Historians say that one reason that such feudal patterns are so hard to destroy is that despite the fact that the American Revolution overthrew the colonial power of the British Empire, it barely touched the workplace.
Long after the Revolution, the main legal doctrine that governed the American workplace was the "law of master and servant," a direct carry over from the systems of privilege and hierarchy that shaped the feudal society of the late Middle Ages.
This workplace doctrine was similar to those that applied to husband and wife, parent and child, and guardian and ward. The power of employers over workers was considered a private relationship, unaffected by the Bill of Rights. For example, it was not until 1843 that American courts stopped allowing employers to beat their employees.
These legal doctrines also reached outside the factory walls, allowing companies to control workers and ex-workers alike. To this end, another control mechanism was the use of "crimes of status" -- violations resulting not from a person's actions, but simply from his or her circumstances.
Well into the nineteenth-century, such crimes continued to be prosecuted. Writes UCLA professor Karen Orren: "Whatever the public rights and private aspirations of the worker, he or she was in reality a free person against everyone except his or her employer."
With the emergence of the union movement in the United States, workers have won a number of rights. But to this day that process remains incomplete. Rights as basic as free speech, privacy, and free association remain heavily contested terrain, and victories such as that of Kourosh Hamidi are more the exception than the rule.
In her book, Nickel and Dimed, sociologist Barbara Ehrenreich describes her stints as a low-paid worker for a domestic cleaning service: "You have rules such as no talking to your fellow employees ... you're subject to surveillance; you have no privacy whatsoever. The workplace ... is more like a dictatorship. You really check your civil rights at the door."
Such invasions of privacy are rife across corporate America, and they appear to be on the rise. Companies such as "@thought", based in Tarrytown, New York, specialize in a new field called human-resource forensics, which uses the latest technology to spy on the Web usage and email of employees.
According to a 2001 survey by the Privacy Foundation, a Denver research group, more than a third of all American workers with access to computers were being electronically monitored in some fashion.
Yet workers continue to fight back. Despite being isolated, branded as a crank and forced into bankruptcy, Kourosh Hamidi tenaciously pursued his case against Intel. To attract publicity, he used a horse-drawn carriage to deliver 40,000 printed copies of an email message to Intel's headquarters.
Eventually, reports of the case drew the attention of several talented lawyers, as well as dozens of law professors and organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU, AFL-CIO, and the Service Employees International Union.
Marketing companies and internet lawyers watched the case with a great deal of interest because of its implications for spam, bulk e-mail that routinely fills up email boxes. Many web data collection agents use computer programs called "bots" to gather email addresses from company servers. The companies have argued that bots impair the affected systems and cause economic harm.
Because Hamidi did not hack into Intel's systems to send his messages, and because he removed any recipients who asked not to be contacted again, the court decided that he "did nothing but use the e-mail system for its intended purpose -- to communicate with employees", wrote Justice Kathryn Werdegar.
The court emphasized that the distinction between Hamidi's case and other superficially similar spam cases is that Intel objected to Hamidi's e-mail messages because of their content, not their effect on the company computer systems.
This article is adapted from "Gangs of America: The Rise of Corporate Power and the Disabling of Democracy" by Ted Nace, published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 2003.
Ted Nace is a writer and publisher. His most recent book is "Gangs of America: The Rise of Corporate Power and the Disabling of Democracy" (Berrett-Koehler, 2003). Nace founded Peachpit Press, the world's leading1310publisher of books on computer graphics and desktop publishing. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org