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Justices consider 'personal' texts sent on government devices

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  1. Freedom of Information
The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on Monday about whether government employers violated employees’ privacy rights by reading personal text…

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on Monday about whether government employers violated employees’ privacy rights by reading personal text messages sent from government-issued devices. The outcome of the case could have an impact on how public-records laws are interpreted.

The case began when the police department in Ontario, Calif., conducted an audit of employee text messages to see if its SWAT team officers were sending too many personal messages, The Associated Press reported. Several officers objected because the office’s informal policy allowed employees to send personal messages, provided they paid for the charges that exceeded the monthly allowance, even though the formal policy warned officers that they had no expectation of privacy.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) ruled in favor of the officers, but several of the Supreme Court justices seemed to be leaning towards siding with the government, the AP reported.

The case is likely to be decided on narrow grounds, since SWAT team officers’ records are often considered public records under California law, unlike those of other government employees. On the other hand, whether the personal messages are considered public records may hinge on whether they contain information about employees’ public duties.

Still, Chief Justice John Roberts cautioned against setting a precedent that “would require people basically to have two of these things with them, two of whatever they are — the text messager or the BlackBerrys or whatever,” according to the transcript.

The Reporters Committee joined a media organization amicus brief, arguing that under the state open records act, public bodies must disclose communications like those at issue in this case.