Thursday, June 17, 2010

Supreme Court Issues Groundbreaking Social Media Law Case

The U.S. Supreme Court earlier today issued a unanimous ruling in the City of Ontario, California et al v. Quon government workplace privacy sexting case. The Court ruled that a public employer's review of text messages on a publicly owned electronic device was a reasonable search under the Fourth Amendment and that the Ninth Circuit erred by concluding otherwise. The Court focused on the Fourth Amendment search issue and side stepped the broader expectation of privacy issue.

On December 14, 2009, I blogged about this case and I opined that 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 all electronic communications that are sent via an employer owned account. My opinion was based on the premise that while using employer owned devices employees either know or should know that their employer may need to review the messages that have been sent via the electronic device for a work-related purpose.

Here, the Petitioner, City of Ontario, had purchased pagers for Respondent, Quon and others who were employed by the City. Only after Quon and other public employees had exceeded the character limits that the City had purchased on their behalf for several months did the City inquire why this was occurring. Upon reviewing the transcripts of the messages that Quon was sending, the City realized that a large percentage of the sent messages were personal and not work related. Quon was disciplined for misusing his City owned electronic device so he filed a suit against the City. The City of Ontario had a policy on computer, Internet, and e-mail use that clearly stated that the city had the right to monitor such communications. The policy allowed “light personal communications” but said “users should have no expectation of privacy or confidentiality.” Sergeant Quon signed a statement agreeing to the City's policy.

The Quon decision should be a wake up call to government employees. In the public sector, electronic communications sent through employer owned electronic accounts may not be subject to the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches, as long as employers have “a legitimate work-related purpose” for inspecting the communications. Both public and private employers need to have policies in place that outline the usage policy of employer owned devices and accounts because the line is blurring between personal and business use of electronic devices and accounts. I predict that the Supreme Court will be hearing more cases in the near future regarding similar issues and that the court will need to understand the specific nuances of social media and the electronic devices utilized to access these new technologies and platforms.

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