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U.S. Supreme Court to Address Privacy of Text Messages

The U.S. Supreme Court announced on Monday that it would hear arguments in a case involving sexually explicit text messages sent by employees using their employer-provided pagers. The issue for the court is whether the employer violated its employees’ privacy rights by reading the messages.

The case involved several police officers with the Ontario, California, SWAT unit. The Ontario Police Department had a general computer and Internet use policy that prohibited employees from using the department’s computers and Internet service for personal reasons and advised them that they had no expectation of privacy in their use of those items. Employees who received pagers were required to acknowledge the policy and were informed of a 25,000-character limit on text messages sent per moth.

However, the lieutenant who oversaw the department’s pager use consistently informed employees who exceeded the monthly text limit that they would have to pay the overage charges themselves or else the department may audit the messages for any personal use.

In practice, anyone who went over the limit was allowed to pay the overage charges. However, when one officer repeatedly exceeded the limit, the department decided to take a look at his messages to determine whether they were all work-related, ostensibly with the intent of increasing the limit if necessary. When it discovered a number of sexually explicit text messages from the officer to several other officers on the force, the matter was referred to internal affairs to determine whether the officers were wasting city time.

The questions to be decided by the Supreme Court include:

  • whether the officers had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the text messages;
  • how far that expectation of privacy extended; and
  • whether the scope of the department’s investigation into the messages was unreasonable because it could have been conducted using less intrusive methods, such as enabling the officer to redact transcript messages before they were reviewed.

The Court is expected to hear arguments in the case next spring.