WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court said Monday it would rule for the first time on whether employees have a right to privacy when they send text messages on electronic devices supplied by their employers.

The justices agreed to hear an appeal from a police department in Ontario, Calif., which was successfully sued by Sgt. Jeff Quon and three other officers after their text messages - some of which were sexually explicit - were read by the police chief.

Last year, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals broke new ground by ruling the police officers had a "reasonable expectation of privacy" in their text messages. The officers had been led to believe by a supervisor that they could use their pager for personal use, the appeals court said.

A Supreme Court ruling on the issue, due by June, could set new rules for the workplace at a time when most employees use computers, cell phones or texting devices as part of their jobs. The 9th Circuit's opinion was the first from a federal appeals court to hold that the Constitution protected the privacy rights of workers who were using electronic devices supplied by their employer.

City officials in Ontario said they had told their employees, including the police officers, that they did not have a guarantee of privacy when using city-supplied texting devices.

The police chief said the pagers were to be used for official police business, and he asked to see the messages to determine whether the pagers were used for mostly personal messages.

Arch Wireless Co., which provided the texting service, turned over the transcripts to the chief. Quon and three other officers sued after they learned their messages had been read.

Last year, the appeals court ruled the police chief's inspection violated the officer's rights under the 4th Amendment. It also found the wireless company violated the federal electronic communications privacy act when it turned over the messages without the consent of Quon.

The case has drawn wide interest among privacy advocates. Until the 9th Circuit's ruling, most judges had said the employers who provide computers, cell phones or texting devices for their workers are entitled to control how these devices are used. Most employers, including the city of Ontario, had a formal policy which said employees did not have a privacy right when they were sending emails or other messages.

The city told employees it "reserves the right to monitor and log all network activity including e-mail and Internet use, without or without notice."

In their appeal, lawyers for Ontario and its police department said the 9th Circuit's ruling, if upheld, would affect public employers across the nation. The part of its opinion involving wireless service providers also could affect private companies as well.

"It is not objectively reasonable to expect privacy in a message sent to someone else's workplace pager, let alone a police officer's department-used pager," the city argued.

The high court said it would hear arguments in the case, City of Ontario v. Quon, in the spring and issue a decision by the end of June.

(c)2009, Chicago Tribune.

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