Text-Messaging Privacy: Labor and Employment Comes (Slowly?) Into the Electronic World

In looking at commentary on yesterday’s granting of cert in (more about that follows), I found a reference to an interesting law review article by William A. Herbert, Deputy Chair and Counsel for the New York State Public Employment Relations Board, provocatively titled, The Electronic Workplace: To Live Outside the Law You Must Be Honest.

While I haven’t read the whole article, I was struck by one of his introductory comments:

In many ways, United States labor and employment law sleepwalked into cyberspace. Although there is wide societal recognition that new technologies are leading to the diminishment of personal privacy, there has not been an equal demand for changes in the legal paradigm.

There’s probably a lot of truth to that, but I think that it is changing.

Besides not being able to open your email without the announcement of yet another seminar on social media, there’s other evidence that we are actually moving beyond the platform to actual developments. One is a report from Richard Negri at today’s workplace, Some Things I Took Away From The Organizing Conference Last Week. That’s organizing as in bringing a union to your workplace, not as in straightening your closets. If you don’t think it’s a different world, just check out the power point presentation, Organizing & New Media in the Obama Era at the conference’s web site.

And yesterday, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in the Quon case where the 9th Circuit held that notwithstanding the city’s policy that it could review electronic messages on equipment furnished to its employees, the employee nevertheless had an expectation of privacy because of the way the policy was implemented. Although the case is likely to turn on 4th Amendment law that is not directly relevant to private sector employers, any action by the Court that seems to expand the privacy rights of employees is likely to have a ripple effect on related areas such as common law privacy claims.

It may be too early to say that labor and employment law is up to date on all forms of communication and interaction that we now live with on a daily basis, but there’s no question that willingly or not, it is clear that we will soon be dealing with them.

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