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Supreme Court Rules Employee Right to Privacy Limited

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that a California employee’s rights were not violated when his boss read transcripts of sexually explicit text messages he sent to his mistress via his work pager. The justices ruled 9-0 in favor of the employer. 

Police Sgt. Jeff Quon sued his police chief boss and the City of Ontario on the grounds that his supervisor’s acquiring and reading of his text message transcripts amounted to a violation of the 4th Amendment’s rule against unreasonable search and seizure. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco agreed with Quon, saying that he had reason to believe that his messages were private.

The U.S. Supreme Court, however, disagreed. The justices said that it was probable that Quon knew his privacy was limited and that, as long as the boss was checking the messages for a “work-related” purpose or to investigate “work-related misconduct”, it was justified. 

The 4th Amendment ban on unreasonable search and seizure protects the rights of the public, but it also protects the rights of employees of state, local, and federal agencies. This case, City of Ontario vs. Quon was the first case to ask justices to rule on privacy rights of employees who send messages on electronic devices. 

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said that the ruling is specific to this particular situation. In other words, there will likely be more decisions to come from the high court involving the wide variety of disputes that could arise over employees’ privacy rights when using electronic devices owned by their employer.


Justices rule in favor of California police chief who read employee’s texts (Los Angeles Times)


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