Perhaps “the” question in this age of workplace technological innovation concerns the amount of privacy employees should have in electronic locations in the workplace. An important related question is whether public sector and private sector employees, who have different legal status under the state action doctrine, should enjoy the same level of workplace privacy. Recently, in the Fourth Amendment workplace privacy case of City of Ontario v. Quon, the United States Supreme Court considered both of these questions. Quon involved alleged privacy violations by a city police department when it audited an officer’s text messages from his city-issued pager.
In a cryptic decision, Justice Kennedy held for a unanimous court that assuming the officer had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the pager, the city's search of the pager was reasonable under two possible legal tests. First, under the plurality test enunciated by the Supreme Court in O’Connor v. Ortega, it was reasonable because it was motivated by a legitimate work-related purpose and was not excessive in scope. Second, under the test outlined by Justice Scalia in his concurring opinion in O’Connor, it was reasonable because it would be considered “reasonable and normal” in the private sector workplace. To varying degrees, both of these legal tests suggest that questions of workplace privacy in the public and private sectors should be treated the same.
Rather than elevating private-sector privacy rights to the public-sector level, however, Quon suggests that public employee workplace privacy rights should be reduced to the level of employees in the private sector. Maintaining that public sector workers are entitled to greater levels of privacy protections based on the text of the constitution, the power of the government as employer, and the critical oversight role public employees play in American democracy, this article argues for a new, two-step workplace privacy analysis which first focuses on the purpose of the search and then applies presumptively the Fourth Amendment’s warrant and probable cause requirements to those searches undertaken for investigatory purposes.
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/paul_secunda/12/