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Supreme Court to hear case on privacy rights of public employees

 The Supreme Court will hear a case later this term which will help establish the contours of privacy in the workplace, although the focus will be on public employees, not private.

Sgt. Jeff Quon was a member of the Ontario, California police department.  The department had a written policy reserving the right to monitor “network activity including e-mail and Internet use,” allowing “light personal communications” by employees but cautioning that they “should have no expectation of privacy.”  At the same time, members of the department’s SWAT team were given pagers and told they were responsible for charges in excess of 25,000 characters a month. Under an informal policy adopted by a police lieutenant, those who paid the excess charges themselves would not have their messages inspected.

When the lieutenant changed his mind and ordered transcripts of messages sent and received by Sgt. Quon, he found that in one month only 57 of more than 450 of his messages were related to police business and that many of the messages  sexually explicit.

Sergeant Quon and some of the people with whom he messaged sued, saying their Fourth Amendment rights had been violated.  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, holding the the department’s formal policy had been overridden by the “operational reality” of the lieutenant’s informal policy.

The City of Ontario and its police department, in asking the Supreme Court to hear the case, said “a lower-level supervisor’s informal arrangement” should not be allowed to trump “the employer’s explicit no-privacy policy.”

While the Court’s decision will likely turn on the 4th Amendment’s prohibitions of illegal searches, which does not protect private employees, the decision will likely offer some guidance to private employees as well.

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