Monday, December 14, 2009

Supreme Court To Hear Potentially Groundbreaking Social Media Law Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a Federal appeals court case from California that may lay the groundwork for determining whether an employee has an expectation of privacy when sending a personal text message and other personal communication from a work computer or other work issued property in the Social Media Age. The case, City of Ontario, California, et al., Petitioners v. Jeff Quon, et al. (No. 08-1332) may enable the Supreme Court to determine when and if an employer has the right to monitor any of the following personal accounts accessed at work: a personal email account, a Facebook account, or a Twitter feed.

Police sergeant Jeff Quon sued the City of Ontario, CA for violating his workplace privacy rights. Quon claimed that the City conducted a constitutionally banned unreasonable search by reviewing his text messages, despite those messages being sent from a city owned and paid for pager account. Notwithstanding Quon's claim, the trial court ruled that the City of Ontario had not violated his privacy. Quon successfully appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals, 9th Circuit which reversed the trial court's decision. The City of Ontario has since appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court claiming that Quon did not have an expectation of privacy in his communications.

Interestingly, Quon signed a form that acknowledged that his personal communications on his work-issued electronic devices would not be private. Despite signing the form, he utilized a work issued pager to send non-work related messages, including messages that some have deemed sexually explicit.

In general, an employer has the right to monitor any electronic communications accessed via employer owned equipment. Internet and Social Media Law is still evolving and the courts have begun to recognize there may be a distinction when an employee accesses personal email and social media accounts utilizing an employer's property.

In my opinion, the Supreme Court should reverse the 9th Circuit's ruling and find for the City of Ontario because an employer needs to be able to review any electronic communication that is sent via an employer owned account. Email, text messaging, and pagers have been commonly used in the workplace for more than 15 years and employees know or should know that they have no expectation of privacy when sending messages through an employer owned account. An employee should only have an expectation of privacy when communicating on his or her own personal computer, personal cell phone, or personal smartphone.

The case is scheduled to be argued in Spring 2010 with a Summer 2010 decision likely.

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