Supreme Court Rules in Precedent-Setting Electronic Privacy Case

The Supreme Court Thursday issued its long-awaited ruling in City of Ontario v. Quon, the first case to test an employee's right to privacy in messages sent on employer-provided devices. Text messages sent on work equipment are fair game for employers to read as long as the employer has a reasonable need to do so, the court ruled, reversing a 2008 9th Circuit opinion.

Police Sgt. Jeff Quon sued his employer, the city of Ontario, Calif., after the police department read text messages, some of them sexually explicit, he sent from a city-issued pager. Quon had exceeded the number of text messages included with the department plan. Even though he offered to pay the overage charges, the police chief requested transcripts of the text messages from the wireless carrier, Arch Wireless, to determine if Quon's messages were personal or work related. The 9th Circuit ruled that this violated Quon's expectation of privacy because the police department's policy wasn't consistently enforced and didn't specifically address text messages.

But the high court disagreed, ruling that the search was justified by a "legitimate work-related purpose."

"Even if he could assume some level of privacy would inhere in his messages, it would not have been reasonable for Quon to conclude that his messages were in all circumstances immune from scrutiny," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the court, further stating that Quon's experience as a police officer should have prepared him for the fact that his communications might come under legal scrutiny.

Associate Editor

Lauren Williamson

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