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 that 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 when most American workers spend at least part of their day talking on phones or sending messages on computers or cell phones, 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, as well as federal workers. And in the past, the court's decisions on the right to privacy have also influenced decisions in the private sector as well.
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. He found that most of the messages sent by Sgt. Jeff Quon were personal and that some were sexually explicit. Some were sent to an ex-wife, and others to a girlfriend. In August 2002, for example, the audit found that Quon had sent or received 456 messages but that only 57 were work-related.
After learning that his messages had been read, Quon sued Scharf and the city, and won a ruling from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Its judges said that there was no need to snoop through Quon's personal messages. They noted that Quon's commanding officer had told him he could use the pager for personal messages, so long as he paid the cost.
But the Supreme Court disagreed and said the law tilts in favor of the employer, not the employee. A public employee has, at most, "a limited privacy expectation" when using a pager supplied by a police department, the justices said.
The lawyer for Quon called the ruling a setback for employees everywhere. "It is a very bad opinion. They are chipping away at the constitutional rights of employees," said lawyer Michael McGill of Upland, Calif. "It means privacy rights are very limited."