First Amendment Question In United Dispute

In an escalating battle with its mechanics, United Airlines has obtained a subpoena for computer files and user identities from a Web site popular with airline mechanics.
United went to federal court Nov. 17 and obtained a restraining order forbidding mechanics from taking part in a job action that would delay or cancel flights. In a subpoena obtained Wednesday, United`s lawyers seek identifying information on about 30 mechanics who have posted messages to a bulletin board on the Web at www.the-mechanic.com


United confirmed the subpoena on Monday and said it believes mechanics posting to the site had encouraged violating the restraining order. The airline said it cancelled 60 flights on Monday, about three times normal. It is in negotiations with the mechanics union.


``It is clear the temporary restraining order is not being complied with,`` United spokesman Andy Plews says.


The subpoena, a copy of which is on the Web site, went to Dennis Lee Sanderson, a United mechanic who runs the site out of his Virginia home. Mechanics from various airlines trade information and sometimes criticism of airline management on the site.
The subpoena requests the names, addresses and telephone numbers for mechanics who have posted messages to the bulletin board by user names such as Brokenwrench, Jetmech and Torquemaster. It also seeks any information tying the site to the International Association of Machinists, which represents United`s mechanics, or the American Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA), a rival union that`s seeking to organize United`s mechanics.
``The objective of the whole thing is to shut the Web site down,`` Sanderson says. ``I`m no constitutional lawyer, but don`t people have a right to disagree with corporate management?``
He says that he received a letter from a United supervisor accusing him of participating in the slowdown and threatening him with disciplinary action. Sanderson denies taking part in any job action. He says he supports AMFA but has no official role and receives no union support. He says he doesn`t have personal information on most mechanics who post to the site.
United is not the first airline to go after its employees` personal computer records. In January, Northwest Airlines obtained a subpoena to search the home computers of flight attendants for proof they were engaging in a possibly illegal work slowdown. That action was dropped when a new contract was reached. Sanderson says he doesn`t have the resources to fight United. ``They must think I`m some kind of AOL or Yahoo!,`` he says. ``I`m doing this in my basement.``
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