In a potentially unsettling decision, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday that employers are legally permitted to read messages sent through a work cell phone or computer as long as there is a “legitimate work-related purpose.”
The case in question had to do with a police chief in California who discovered that one of his officers had used his work pager to send “explicit text messages” to his girlfriend. The police officer responded by filing a lawsuit claiming his boss had violated his right to privacy, but the court ruled unanimously that it had not.
“At issue was whether the 4th Amendment's ban on ‘unreasonable searches’ puts any limits on searches by public employers. The court said the limits were minimal, so long as the employer had a ‘work-related purpose’ for inspecting an employee's desk or reading messages sent by the employee on an agency paging system,” the Los Angeles Times reports.
While it may sound obvious that an employee should not be using a work phone, pager or computer to send “explicit” messages, this ruling does have broader implications. The decision focuses on the devices that are given to you through work, but does not clarify the difference between work e-mail accounts and personal e-mail accounts. So, if bosses take advantage of this ruling, will employees be penalized for sending personal messages from personal accounts that contain profane language or flirtatious remarks? If so, how many Americans can honestly say they aren’t guilty of doing this at some point during the work week? Beyond that, there is also the question of what exactly constitutes a “work-related purpose." This motive for search seems a bit too vague.
According to ABC News, Justice Anthony Kennedy admitted that this was a sensitive ruling that would inevitably push the Supreme Court into “a new legal frontier” of deciding privacy rights in a digital age. Unfortunately, there are some lingering doubts now over whether this Supreme Court is equipped to handle this sort of debate. Back in April, when the court began debating this case, reports came out that the Supreme Court justices had great difficulty understanding this new technology. At one point, Chief Justice Roberts actually asked the lawyers to clarify the difference "between email and a pager."
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