Employers can read staff text messages, court rules

Bosses have the right to check an employee’s text messages, the Supreme Court has ruled, if they think work rules are being broken.

The Court concluded that a California police department did not violate constitutional privacy rights by reading the text messages on a pager issued to an employee.

“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,” said Justice Anthony M Kennedy.

Sergeant Jeff Quon was issued with a police pager. But when the department decided to evaluate whether staff were over-using them for personal reasons, it discovered Quon had been tap-tapping away sending fruity messages to his girlfriend. Quon, who’s wife wasn’t best pleased, sued the city.

A first court ruled that the search was justified, as there was a good work-related reason; two years ago an appeals court disagreed.

But Justice Kennedy ruled that the city “had a legitimate interest in ensuring that employees were not being forced to pay out of their own pockets for work-related expenses, or on the other hand that the city was not paying for extensive personal communications.”

It’s unclear whether the decision has implications for the rights of all workers. If it does, we can expect to see a lot more red faces. But it may only serve as a precedent for employees of public bodies.