In its first decision addressing the evolving intersection of communication technologies and workplace etiquette, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that text messages sent by a police officer on department equipment cannot be kept secret from his superiors.
But the court ruled narrowly in the unanimous decision, and questions remain regarding whether employers can stop their workers in all cases from sending personal messages using company equipment.
“A broad holding concerning employees privacy expectations vis-a-vis employer-provided technological equipment might have implications for future cases that cannot be predicted,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the court’s opinion. “It is preferable to dispose of this case on narrower grounds.”
The ruling essentially maintains the status quo of allowing employers to implement policies preventing employees from using company communication equipment for personal use.
But Bart Lazar, an intellectual-property lawyer whose expertise includes privacy and security involving electronic communications, said the narrowness of the ruling leaves open scenarios in which employees could keep private communications made on company equipment.
The Supreme Court made its ruling in a case that centers on the personal and often sexually explicit text messages sent and received by Ontario, Calif., police Sgt. Jeff Quon on a department-issued pager.
The department purchased text-messaging pagers to improve logistical communications among members of its SWAT team. But Sgt. Quon used his pager to exchange hundreds of personal messages with his wife, his mistress, who is a dispatcher at the department, and another sergeant on the SWAT team.
The police chief ordered an audit of Sgt. Quon’s text messages because he routinely exceeded his monthly allowance. An internal review determined that Sgt. Quon sent and received an average of 28 text messages per shift, only three of which were work-related.
The department said it was allowed to audit Sgt. Quon’s messages because he had signed an agreement with the city that stated: “The City of Ontario reserves the right to monitor and log all network activity including e-mail and Internet use, with or without notice. Users should have no expectation of privacy or confidentiality when using these resources.”
According to the city, Sgt. Quon was informed that the e-mail policy also applied to text-message pagers.
He lost the case at trial. But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco - which is considered the most liberal - sided with Sgt. Quon and ruled that the audit violated the Fourth Amendment’s protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures.”
The appeals court decision was based in part on an informal agreement that the lieutenant who administered the pagers had with the other officers, in which he would not audit their pagers if they agreed to pay for any overage charges.
That court ruled that the informal agreement was essentially a modification of the department’s policy and gave Sgt. Quon “a reasonable expectation of privacy.”