Correction to This Article
Headlines on this article about a Supreme Court decision incorrectly indicated that the ruling would allow employers to eavesdrop on workers' conversations on work-issued telephones and computers. The decision did not apply to private employers, and it did not involve real-time monitoring. It held that a police chief was justified in searching the text messages sent and received by an officer who was using his equipment for personal communications while on duty. The opinion also specified that a supervisor must have "a legitimate work-related purpose" to conduct such a search.

Supreme Court rules on employer monitoring of cellphone, computer conversations

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2010

A hesitant Supreme Court waded cautiously into a question that arises daily in workplaces and offices across the country: whether employers have the right to look over the shoulders of workers who use company computers and cellphones for personal communication.

In the first ruling of its kind, the justices said they do, as long as there is a "legitimate work-related purpose" to monitor them. But the court said it would proceed cautiously in deciding how far an employer can go in searching the "electronic sphere" that has become an inescapable part of the modern workplace.

In the case at hand, the court ruled unanimously that a police chief's search of text messages sent and received by a SWAT team officer did not violate his constitutional protection against unreasonable searches.

Even though Sgt. Jeff Quon of Ontario, Calif., had some expectation of privacy, the court said, the police department's review -- which turned up sexually explicit messages to his wife and his mistress -- was justified.

But at a time when many employers warn that they can monitor workers' use of company computers and cellphones, the court was reluctant to draw clear lines between what is private and what is not.

"Prudence counsels caution," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote, arguing that the court should not use the case of an officer who sends numerous text messages to "establish far-reaching premises that define the existence, and extent, of privacy expectations" of workers using company equipment.

Quon's case may sound familiar to many workers. Even though the department told him and his co-workers that they should not expect privacy when using their pagers, they were also told that personal use would be tolerated to a certain degree. If he exceeded the monthly allotment of texts, he was told, he would have to pay the difference.

He did go over the allowed number, but his superiors tired of collecting the fees and wondered whether the plan was too limited. The police chief ordered the records from the company that provided the texting service.

After removing the texts Quon sent when he was off-duty, his bosses found that the vast majority of his texts were personal -- 400 of 456 one month. According to Kennedy's opinion, he was "allegedly disciplined."

Quon sued, saying the search violated the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches for him and those who texted him.

A district judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit agreed with him.

But the justices said Quon should not have assumed that his text messages "were in all circumstances immune from scrutiny." Kennedy said the department's search was reasonable and, by eliminating those messages he sent while off-duty, not intrusive.

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