Texting at work not protected by law, says Supreme Court

Saturday, June 19th, 2010 By

A New York police officer taking a break to send a text message. Texting at work in this fashion may be subject to employer review, says the Supreme Court.

Texting at work, officer? The Supreme Court has ruled that your chief can read those, and that the Fourth Amendment protection against illegal search and seizure may not apply. (Photo: Flickr)

Many people have tried texting while at work. The technology is ubiquitous in developed nations, and because many people spend the majority of their waking lives in the workplace, it stands to reason that there will be occasions when workers resort to texting at work, regardless of employer policy. The question of whether these communications are automatically private has been addressed by the Supreme Court in the California City of Ontario vs. Quon decision, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Texting at work: Understand your employer’s policy

Police Sgt. Jeff Quon sent sensitive personal messages via a work pager, and subsequently attempted to invoke his Fourth Amendment right to protection against illegal search and seizure when his superiors accessed the texting at work evidence. The Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in favor of the Ontario Police chief, claiming that because there was reason to believe a work policy was being violated, his search of Jeff Quon’s texts did not violate Quon’s constitutional rights. Hence, the court ruled that the search was reasonable.

Sgt. Jeff Quon potentially has a lot to lose

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a police sergeant earns an average of $50,000 per year, although the figure can be higher depending upon experience, locality and other factors. If Sgt. Jeff Quon happened to be placed on some manner of unpaid leave for his texting at work escapades, he’d probably end  up seeking sources of fast cash. As it stands, he had already won an appeal against the Ontario Police Department via the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, writes the Times. But the Supreme Court overturned the decision.

Justice Anthony Kennedy said the search had ‘a legitimate work-related purpose’

Arch Wireless, the contractor that handled the Ontario Police Department’s text paging system, was subpoenaed to release Sgt. Quon’s racy personal messages to his wife and a girlfriend, indicates the L.A. Times. Justice Kennedy of the Supreme Court ruled that the search was justified on work-related grounds and was not unreasonable. Interestingly, Quon’s immediate supervisor had told him that he could use the pager for personal messages as long as he paid the extra fees. Yet the nature of said personal messages by Jeff Quon warranted the investigation, in the Supreme Court’s view.

City of Ontario vs. Quon is reportedly the first case on record to involve privacy issues regarding texting at work via an employee-issued device.


Los Angeles Times

Bureau of Labor Statistics

Other examples of inappropriate texting at work: (WARNING: Some inappropriate language can be heard)

History of the Predictive Text Swearing

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