Supreme Court: Search of work-issued pager acceptable

In a mid-December 2009 blog post, I talked about a case involving an employee in an Ontario, CA, police department who sent sexually explicit text messages on a work pager. After first warning the employee about the number of texts being sent each month, the employer dug a little deeper and reviewed the actual content of the texts. This set off a heated privacy debate that elevated to the Supreme Court.

Our nation’s highest court recently heard arguments and delivered a unanimous ruling: The police department did not violate the constitutional privacy rights of the employee when it audited his text messages on a city-issued pager.

While Justice Anthony M. Kennedy shared that the court was uneasy fashioning comprehensive legal rules, based on the pace of technological and cultural change, he offered practical insight:

“Cellphone and text message communications are so pervasive that some persons may consider them to be essential means or necessary instruments for self-expression, even self-identification. On the other hand, the ubiquity of those devices has made them generally affordable, so one could counter that employees who need cellphones or similar devices for personal matters can purchase and pay for their own.” New York Times

Although the Supreme Court’s decision did not address the privacy rights of people employed by private companies, I think it’s safe to say employers have firm legal footing for issuing a policy prohibiting personal use of company equipment – and for prying if they have a legitimate, work-related purpose for doing so.

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