Government Employees, Sexting and Privacy Rights

By Jason Beahm on June 21, 2010 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

If you work for the government, do you have a right to privacy regarding text messages sent from your cell phone? 
Probably not, according to the 9-0 opinion issued by the U.S. Supreme Court in City of Ontario, California v. Quon. The court ruled that the 4th Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure did not protect against the interception of steaming text messages, or "sexting" by an Ontario, California police officer. 
The case involved officer Jeffrey Quon, who sent steamy text messages from his work-issued two-way pager. The police audited the messages because so many officers were incurring overage charges. When they discovered that Quon was sending messages that were not work related, he was disciplined. He sued. 

Justice Kennedy, who wrote the opinion found that, "Because the search of Quon's text messages was reasonable, petitioners did not violate respondents' Fourth Amendment rights, and the Ninth Circuit erred by concluding otherwise."

The ruling was issued on very narrow grounds as the Court was concerned that there was a risk of unintended consequences if it made broad new legal rules on a case involving new technology, though the case itself involved nearly obsolete two-way pagers. Nevertheless, the Court has demonstrated it is clearly hesitant to create rules regarding technology before the technolgy is fully understood. Justice Kennedy, stated that doing so "might have implications for future cases that cannot be predicted."

So what does this mean for you, if you work as a public employee?

Basically, don't send anything from a government-owned device or through a government owned server if you want to maintain your privacy. The 4th Amendment's protections against unreasonable search and seizure still apply to your personal cell phone and your home computer. So if you insist on sexting, don't do it from your government issued device.

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