Supreme Court To Rule on Privacy, Free Speech in Police Texting Case


Washington, DC—The United States Supreme Court has announced that it will hear a case which concerns a worker’s expectation of privacy when using a government-issued communications device. It will also decide whether the service provider for that device can be held liable if it releases the communications without the sender’s consent.

The case in question concerns a police sergeant in Ontario, California who used his city-issued text-messaging pager to send personal texts, some of which were sexually explicit in nature. Although Jeff Quon had signed a statement agreeing that “use of these tools for personal benefit is a significant violation of City of Ontario Policy” and that “users should have no expectation of privacy or confidentiality when using these resources” such as the Internet or E-mail, he also claims to have been unaware that this police extended to his department. Quon also claimed that there was an informal policy in place that allowed officers to send personal texts, as long as they paid for any overages—a custom that Quon was used to following.

Indeed, Quon turned out to be one of the department’s prime users of the department-issued mobile texting device, and when the chief of police ordered transcripts from his pager, he discovered that of 456 texts Quon sent during one month, only three were work-related. A federal judge said that many of the messages were not “light personal communications,” as generally acceptable by the official policy, but extreme in their sexual explicitness.

Quon, a SWAT team sergeant, had sent the racy texts to his wife, his girlfriend and a fellow officer.

Quon sued the city and the wireless company, USA Mobility, for invasion of privacy, and a federal appeals court ruled in his favor, because the department had ordered the pager transcripts without his consent.

In the past, courts have rules that private communications are protected from “unreasonable search and seizure” even if they are transmitted or delivered through public means, as when a handwritten letter is sent in a sealed envelope through the U.S. Postal Service.

Officials for the city claimed that the review was only undertaken in order “to determine whether the city’s monthly character limit was insufficient to cover business-related messages.” The contract held by the city has a limit of 25,000 characters per month which can be transmitted, with any additional characters constituting an overage.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the matter next spring.


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