Texting On The Company Phone? The Supreme Court Says It’s Okay For Your Boss To Read Them

When will the month of June ever get a decent holiday?  I mean, it was fine when we were kids and got the summer off, unless of course you had summer school.  But once you become an adult, the month is just a long and endless grind until the Fourth of July.  It’s like everyone decided to put only the most tragic days in June, along with all the other hand-me-down holidays.  Well folks, it now seems like the month just keeps getting worst.

Yep, from here on out June 17 will be known in America as the day it became no longer safe to text all those NSFW pictures to your buddies on your company’s dime.  Why, because the U.S. Supreme Court says so, that’s why.

Okay, so that was a little over-exaggerated, but at least I got your attention.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some far-reaching implications resulting from this case – which will get into a little further down in the post.  But for those of you who haven’t been following this case, City of Ontario, California v. Quon, and don’t feel like reading the 26-page Supreme Court opinion, here’s the lowdown.

A few years back, Sgt. Jeff Quon, a police officer in the city of Ontario, was given a pager by the his police department to allow him stay in contact with other officers and, in general, help him do his job better.  But like with all free good things, people eventually tend to overuse them.  And the story was no different with Quon, who had started to use his government-issued pager as his own personal messaging device.  On top of sending mundane everyday communiqués, Quon also used the device to send sexually explicit messages.  And that’s where things turned ugly as it turns out the devices were being monitored by his supervisors. Quon usage when over the department’s 25,000 character per month cap and his device was flagged.  Quon claimed his supervisors’ searches on his pager were illegal and violated his Fourth Amendment rights.  Quon’s supervisors and the city on the other hand, claim there was no violation because Quon, and indeed everyone in the police department who was issue a pager, were told ahead of time that their messages would be monitored and there was a limit on their monthly usage.

Quon won the battle in the lower courts, winning them over by claiming the private nature of the messages, in essence, made them private and therefore protect by the Fourth amendment.  But once it got to the Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg posed a simple hypothetical that tore up Quon’s whole argument. “If the government hands out personal messaging devices to its workers, calls a meeting to put limits on their use, and tells the workers that their e-mails are going to be monitored, why would the employees think their messages were private?”

Now how can you argue with that kind of sound logic?  Anyway, the justices ruled against Quon and established a new privacy law precedent.  In essence, when government employees are issued communication equipment and are notified ahead of time that any communications sent from the equipment will be monitored, the government agency will be allowed to monitor the communications without violating an employee’s constitutional rights.

Now that’s all well and good, but what does it mean for the rest of us?  On the surface it would seem that this ruling only extends to those employed by the government.  And it certainly does. However, the reason we have crafty lawyers is because they are masters at taking a precedent and turning it on its head.  There’s no reason why this rule can’t be extended to those employed in the private sector.  Other than the fact that they aren’t government workers, the notification requirement seems like a perfectly sound way to ensure employees will know their communications on company equipment will be monitored.

If anything, legal analysts agree that this precedent holds even more sway in the private sector.  Because unlike in the public sector where agencies and departments are controlled by government regulations, private employers have more free reign to set their own internal policies; their only limitation being that the rules they set must not be illegal, of course.  This goes with the old contract law notion of buyer beware.

And so, like Aesop’s Fables, the moral to this story is: “Whether you work in the private or public sector, if you’re given a cell phone and told that your messages will be monitored, don’t send text messages worthy of being on this website.”

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