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Fighting for the right to communicate

A former employee of Intel was sued for trespassing when he sent incendiary e-mails to ex-colleagues; two rulings were overturned by the California Supreme Court

By Jill Andersky Fraser  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Internet activist and former Intel employee Koroush Kenneth Hamidi , left, and his supporter Jerry Bestpitch on their way to the Intel headquarters in Santa Clara, California, on July 6, 1999, to deliver a message regarding employment issues to Intel employees on a floppy disk after the Superior Court of Sacramento County had barred Hamidi from sending his messages via e-mail.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

In its simplest terms, this is all about one man, one company and six e-mail messages. Oh yes, and one lawsuit, which took nearly five years to wind its way through the California court system.

Yet the Intel Corp vs. Hamidi never has been all that simple.

It originated in a battle against Intel, the giant semiconductor manufacturer, by Kourosh Kenneth Hamidi, known as Ken, who has spent eight years trying to rally employees at Intel, his former employer, to resist what he considers abusive workplace practices. Hamidi, who was fired by Intel in 1995 for what it terms cause, sent six e-mail messages after his departure to thousands of company employees, prompting Intel to sue him for trespassing.

Over the last few years, the case has assumed importance far beyond one man and one company. A range of public interest activists, cyberlaw experts and labor organizers believed that the suit's decision, if it favored Intel, would restrict free speech and other activities that people now take for granted on the Internet. Business organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers sided with Intel, arguing that the company had the right to block the electronic transmissions since they passed through Intel's private property.

Two weeks ago, the California Supreme Court overturned two lower court decisions and sided with Hamidi rather than Intel, arguing that Intel could not properly use state trespass laws to block Hamidi's e-mail messages since its property had not been damaged by them.

Already, the ruling has come to be viewed as a landmark decision affecting the future of the Internet. Other states are likely to follow California's legal precedent, according to lawyers, legal scholars and cyberspace rights advocates. The decision is not expected to be appealed to the US Supreme Court, since "trespass" is a state issue.

The consequences of this victory, meanwhile, are equally great for Hamidi, who has struggled against enormous odds, in the face of public ridicule, financial ruin and a number of stinging legal defeats. With the California Supreme Court's decision, he has quickly become a symbol of initiatives for cyberspace rights and fair working conditions.

If life were a 1940s movie, the hero of this man-against-the-system drama might be played by Gregory Peck. But at the center of this legal maelstrom is a deceptively ordinary looking 56-year-old man, who lives in Citrus Heights, California, a suburb of Sacramento, and now works as a compliance officer for the state's Franchise Tax Board.

In 1995, he started an organization that soon came to be known as FACE Intel, for former and current employees of Intel, and the next year he developed a Web site, www.faceintel.com, to disseminate information, including accounts that contended there was a connection between job stress at Intel and employee suicides and heart attacks. Mulloy at Intel said such statements "are examples of the absurdity and the falsehoods that Mr. Hamidi continues to perpetuate." Hamidi also filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against Intel, but later dropped it for lack of resources.

A sour ex-?

To some people Hamidi was considered crazy or vengeful. But his movement attracted attention. He conducted numerous interviews with reporters. He handed out leaflets to students at universities where Intel was recruiting. And at some point, he obtained two diskettes containing an electronic file of Intel's employee telephone book. (According to Hamidi, this came to him through the mail in an unmarked envelope.)

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