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Supreme Court Sexting Case: Will Workers' Privacy Rights Sink or Swim?

In December, we told you about a group of police officers in Ontario, California, who had taken their Chief to court after discovering that he'd been reading sexually explicit text messages they had sent on pagers provided by the police department. After a lower court ruled in favor of Sergeant Jeff Quon and the three other plaintiffs (two of whom were Quon's wife and mistress, both policewomen), the department eventually appealed to the Supreme Court, which is finally set to hear the case this week. Although a Court decision is still months away, its ultimate ruling may shed some light on the suddenly hazy borders separating the office from the home.

Now that company-issued smartphones and remote e-mail access have enabled employees to work from virtually anywhere, it's become increasingly difficult to delineate between work life and personal time. As MSNBC reports, the two worlds have gradually begun to merge. A 2009 survey conducted by the ePolicy Institute and the American Management Association shows that 79-percent of hired employees use company e-mail accounts for personal reasons, and, conversely, that 26-percent of employers have fired a worker for "excessive personal use" of corporate digital equipment. Conventional legal wisdom, as University of Richmond professor Ann Hodges explains, "has been that if the employer owns the equipment or system, they can do whatever they want." In Quon's case, however, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the Sergeant had a "reasonable expectation of privacy," simply because he'd paid for any supplementary personal use of the company pager.

We'll have to wait until summer for the high court to make its decision, but it's already become quite clear that a lot will hinge on that decision. Now that technology has broken down the physical barriers separating office from home, both business execs and employees have found themselves in an ambiguous state of legal limbo, in which private and public domains have yet to be officially demarcated. The ever-evolving, case-by-case nature of digital privacy law may render any panacea ruling impossible. But if the Court can find a way to set a fundamental benchmark against which more complex cases can be judged, employers and employees could at least begin treading on legal terra firma -- instead of eggshells. [From: MSNBC]

Tags: employment, government, jobs, law, police, privacy, PrivacyIssues, sexting, SupremeCourt, top, workplace