WASHINGTON – In its first ruling on the rights of employees who send messages on the job, the Supreme Court rejected a broad right of privacy for workers Thursday and said supervisors may read through an employee’s text messages if they suspect work rules are being violated.
In a 9-0 ruling, the justices said a police chief in Ontario, Calif., did not violate the constitutional rights of an officer when he read the transcripts of sexually explicit text messages sent from the officer’s pager.
In this case, the high court said, the police chief’s reading of the officer’s text messages was a search, but it was also reasonable.
Police Sgt. Jeff Quon had sued the chief and the city of Ontario after he learned the chief had read through thousands of text messages he had sent to his wife and a girlfriend. Quon won in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals but lost Thursday in the Supreme Court.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the police chief was concerned that officers might have been using their text pagers for personal messages rather than for police work. He then obtained the transcripts from Arch Wireless, the contractor for its text system, and read through them. This search was reasonable, Kennedy said, because it had “a legitimate work-related purpose” and because “it was not excessive in scope.”
At issue was the Fourth Amendment ban on “unreasonable searches” by the government. This protection extends not only to the public but also to more than 20million employees of state and local agencies, as well as federal workers.
Usually, the Fourth Amendment comes into play in criminal cases, but the justices have said it also protects public employees from unreasonable searches at work. But this case was the first to involve privacy claims arising from messages sent on a pager or computer provided by the employer.
In this case, Sgt. Quon and the other officers were told the text pager was the property of the Police Department and that the city reserved the right to check his messages. However, his direct supervisor had also told Quon that he could use the text pager for personal messages, so long as he paid the extra cost out of his own funds.
In ruling for Quon, the 9th Circuit judges said the officer had good reason to believe his personal messages were private.
The Supreme Court disagreed and said the balance tilted in favor of the employer, not the employee.
“Quon likely had only a limited privacy expectation,” Kennedy said.
He said employers, including public agencies, may conduct searches of their employees for a “work-related purpose” or to investigate “work-related misconduct.”
Kennedy cautioned that the decision was “narrow” and did not resolve all the disputes that can arise in an era when most employees spend much of their day using computers and cell phones.