U.S. Supreme Court rejects workers’ text privacy – Employers may access worker’s messages


Employees who want to send highly personal notes to a romantic partner were given a word of warning by the Supreme Court on Thursday: Do not use the messaging system supplied by your employer if you want to avoid embarrassment.

In a 9-0 ruling, the justices rejected a broad right of privacy for workers and said a supervisor may read through a public employee’s text messages if he or she suspects work rules are being violated.

The decision was the high court’s first to consider the privacy rights of employees who send messages on the job. It comes at a time most U.S. workers spend at least part of their day talking on phones or sending messages on computers or cellphones, many of which are supplied by their employers.

At issue was whether the Fourth Amendment’s ban on “unreasonable searches” puts any limits on searches by public employers. The court said the limits were minimal, so long as the employer had a “work-related purpose” for inspecting an employee’s desk or reading the messages sent by the employee on its paging system.

This decision applies directly to the more than 20 million employees of state and local governments, and federal workers. In the past, the court’s decisions on the right to privacy have influenced decisions in the private sector.

The ruling tossed out a privacy suit brought by a former police sergeant against the police chief in Ontario, Calif. Concerned that officers were using their text pagers mostly for personal messages, Chief Lloyd Scharf decided in 2002 to read some of them.

Quon’s personal messages. They noted Quon’s commanding officer had told him he could use the pager for personal messages, so long as he paid the cost.

The Supreme Court disagreed and said the law tilts the balance in favor of the employer, not the employee. A public employee has at most “a limited privacy expectation” when using a text pager supplied by the police department, the justices said.

“Because the search (by the police chief) was motivated by a legitimate work-related purpose and because it was not excessive in scope, the search was reasonable,” said Justice Anthony Kennedy in City of Ontario v. Quon.

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