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Supreme Court Makes Ruling On Workplace Texting

June 18, 2010

The Supreme Court sent workers a message Thursday that if they have something to text that they do not want their bosses to see, do not use employer-provided cellphones to do it.

The Supreme Court upheld a police department’s search of an officer’s personal messages placed on a government-owned pager, saying the search did not violate his constitutional rights.

Justice Anthony Kennedy said that governments have the right to check the devices to be sure their employees are following company rules.

The case came to be after a search of text messages sent by police sergeant Jeff Quon in Ontario, California, using his department pager. The department discovered several personal messages, some of which were sexually explicit, when it decided to audit text message usage to see if SWAT officers were using their pagers properly, in compliance with company rules.

Kennedy noted that in a one month period, Quon sent or received 456 messages during work hours, with nearly 400 of those being personal.

Quon, and three other people who sent him messages sued the department, contending their constitutional rights were violated by the search.

In most workplace settings, employers tell their employees there is no guarantee of privacy in anything sent over their company-provided computers, cellphones and pagers.

Ontario has a similar policy. But one police official also informally told officers that their pagers would not be audited if the officers paid for charges above a monthly allowance.

The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said the informal policy was enough to give the officers some privacy in texting and also establish that their constitutional rights had been violated.

The Supreme Court reversed that ruling. It did not decide whether Quon had a reasonable expectation of privacy, but said that even if he did, the search itself was reasonable.

Kennedy said that many employers accept or tolerate personal communications on company equipment and on company time. But he suggests that employees who want to avoid the potential embarrassment of having such an incidence come to light, might “want to purchase and pay for their own” cellphones and other devices.

Joshua Dressler, an Ohio State University law professor, said the court probably was wise to rule narrowly.

“With modern technology quickly moving in directions the justices could not have imagined even a decade ago, it is increasingly obvious that the Supreme Court will need to determine the limits of government surveillance” of our personal transmissions, Dressler tolf the Associated Press.

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