Eight employees of the state of Washington who were fired or disciplined for inappropriate use of e-mail must endure the additional embarrassment of having those electronic messages–reportedly thousands of them–released to the public.
Six employees of the state’s Department of Labor and Industries in Olympia, Wash., were let go in December for exchanging e-mails that included sexual banter, jokes and plans for a sex party. Two other workers have been disciplined for passing an excessive number of e-mails, though not sexually explicit ones.
Because all eight were government employees and the messaging took place at work, their e-mails are considered public property and, therefore, public record, said Jeremy Gruber, legal director of the National Workrights Institute in Princeton, N.J.
“Unfortunately, neither the law nor the courts have found any real right to privacy regarding e-mail or Internet use as far as employees are concerned,” Gruber said. “The courts have generally found that employers, as owners of the equipment, in effect own the e-mail.”
The Washington Federation of State Employees sought to block the release of the messages in court, saying they served no public interest. But last week, the union settled with the state, which agreed to eliminate the names of other workers and outside persons before releasing the information.
Tim Welch, union spokesman, said the union settled to avoid setting a bad legal precedent. He said the workers were clearly wrong and should have been disciplined but not fired.
“There were no security breaches. There was nothing illegal, other than they might have overused a state resource,” Welch said.
Several of the disciplined workers said they were unaware of the state’s e-mail policy and had no idea the messages could become public.
But Eva Santos, deputy director of the state agency, said employees are reminded of the state’s e-mail policy once a year. However, after coming across the first illicit e-mail, she said the agency sent out a reminder electronically.
Many employees have no idea they’re being monitored at work, Gruber said.
“This raises huge privacy concerns. People do not work from 9 to 5, and people can’t be expected to have absolutely no contact with the outside world while they’re at work,” he said.
The question in the Olympia case should be whether the public has a right to know everything a government employee says, Gruber said.
“The public has the right to know issues of public interest. The public doesn’t have the need or the right to know the personal business of public employees.”