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Court seizes home computers in Northwest Airlines labour dispute

Rather jack-booted and thuggish, isn't it?

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Americans don't call it "North-worst Airlines" for nothing. In addition to serving up what civilised travellers agree is the least competent and most churlish air service in North America, the company recently sought and gained a temporary restraining order against two Webmasters it accuses of organising a sick-out. Flight attendants Kevin Griffin and Ted Reeve both maintained Web sites during contract negotiations between Northwest and the Teamsters Local 2000 late last year. Northwest alleges that Reeve and Griffin incited a sick-out via their BBS. At the company's bidding, Minnesota district court issued a temporary restraining order against Reeve and Griffin on 5 January. The order forbade them from "approving of" or "permitting" a sick-out, queerly assuming that they might have the power to prevent one. For a kicker, the court ordered copies made of both men's personal, home computer hard drives, raising important questions about how far corporate baby-sitting may reasonably extend into our private lives. According to Ralph Nader watchdog group Public Citizen, the court issued the temporary restraining order without notifying the men, effectively denying them representation at the hearing where these decisions were made. Public Citizen is seeking to have the order vacated, and has filed a motion with the Eighth Circuit Federal Appellate Court on behalf of Griffin and Reeve. It all looks a bit dodgy to us. According to Northwest's own records, neither man participated in the sick-out for which they are being blamed, and which occurred in late December. According to Public Citizen's filing, the complaint alleged that the defendants "had incited members of the union to engage in a sick-out, that beginning on December 21 there had been a sharp increase in the number of flight attendants calling in sick, out of proportion to statistics from prior years, and that as a result Northwest had been forced to cancel many flights." Public Citizen Litigation Group lawyer Paul Levy offers another explanation. "It was not a typical New Year," Levy told The Register. "A number of flight attendants may have called in sick due to Y2K concerns, or simply because the Millennium bash was such a special occasion." The group is accusing the court of serious miscarriages of justice: exerting prior restraint on speech against the men, and improperly denying them a hearing on the matter of the temporary restraining order. "There are circumstances where a hearing would not be required, but you always have to explain why," Levy says. In this case, no explanation, indeed, no notice whatever, was given, the group maintains. Levy seems fairly optimistic about the prospects of reversing on appeal. Northwest is flooding the court with "lots of paper," he observes. A strategy "typical of a big firm representing a wealthy corporation," especially when it has less than a compelling case. But Levy is neither overconfident nor overly worried: "they recognise that they can't prove that Griffin and Reeve were involved in the sick out," he says. Meaning that if they are shot down on appeal, Northwest doesn't really want to try the case on its merits. The appellate court has given Northwest's legal dream-team until Monday to reply to Public Citizen's filing. Apparently, the court is not interested in big corporate delay tactics likely to bury it in "lots of paper". A positive sign, we think. The Register has always had faith in the appeals process. We hope it's not been misplaced. ®

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