If you're interested in the intersection between police searches, library employee political speech, political patronage, patron privacy, read on.
This case has it all - claims that library staff campaigned against a mayor using library equipment, a police raid in the library, and an 80 page court decision sorting it all out.
Amidst a slew of plaintiffs, defendants and issues are claims against the mayor and the police by a former library director, a library systems administrator, and an independent contractor to the library.
On April 20, 2004, a police detective and computer expert went to the library during open hours without a warrant. They searched the library system administrator's computer for 90 minutes after the administrator provided them with his password. They then searched a library contractor's email account, apparently ordering him to provide his Yahoo password or face arrest.
Did the police have the right to search these computers? The court engaged in very different legal analyses for the men. For the director and the system administrator, both employees, the court ruled that there was no reasonable expectation of privacy in their work emails and stored documents.
The independent contractor, however, said he had used the library computers with a Yahoo account as a patron. The court said this was a private email account, not a workplace account. The library contractor did have a reasonable expectation of privacy in his Yahoo account. Did he voluntarily consent to the search? That was left for a jury to decide.
Voluntary consent is a thorny issue. The court mentioned that that the director gave voluntary consent to search his computer since he gave the police his password. More on that below.
Additionally, the police chief, the library director and the systems administrator claimed they lost their jobs because they didn't support the mayor's candidacy. This could be a violation of the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of association.
Of course, it's not a simple analysis. The court noted that "replacing key personnel from a former administration with campaign supporters and other politically-loyal allies of a newly-elected official is a time-honored political practice." The circuit has a well developed legal test to determine when it is permissible, under the First Amendment, to require a certain political affiliation in a top public employee.
The key factor boiled down to whether the position was "policy making" with influence over programs and policy initiatives. The chief of police was a policy maker, so it was okay for the mayor to replace him with a political appointment (unless other factors like a merit personnel system were violated).
There was no evidence, however, that the systems administrator had a policy making position. This actually helped him, as that means it's not okay to terminate him based on his political affiliation. A jury needs to decide if he was terminated because of his politics.
As for the library director, the court didn't need to reach that issue, since it determined that his resignation was voluntary. More on this below.
Wilson v. Moreau, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55310 (August 4, 2006).
Minow comments: This case is a clear example of the difference between employee and patron privacy. I don't understand why the library confidentiality law was not cited (see post continuation), but actually it's much better that the court found patron privacy directly in the Fourth Amendment. I hope someone writes an article on it. Even if library employees were improperly using library equipment for campaign purposes, that would be a city rules violation, not a criminal offense. (I'm not saying there was improper use - this is apparently still in dispute. Some campaign materials were found on the library computers, yet the library employee said he had only worked on the campaign at home.) Lesson to everyone: keep your political campaign work off the library computer. If you work on it during a break, use your Yahoo account and a public computer.
As for the library director's "voluntary" resignation - it seems to me that this should have gone to a jury. The director said in his affidavit:
He [Moreau] immediately began to harass members of my staff and me. It seemed that he was obsessed with possibility that library staff members had politically supported his opponent. Finally, unable to continue to bear Mr. Moreau's harassment I told the City Council at a meeting on April 12 that I was stepping down from my position as library director and that my last day would be April 30.
Also, about that consent - I find the director's affidavit showing something other than a pure voluntary permission to police to search his computer. His affidavit says:
. . . I reluctantly stated that the police officers could have access to the computers but I meant this as my decision not to resist the search.
The court cited a 1993 First Circuit opinion which found voluntary consent even after seven or eight law enforcement officers, with guns drawn, entered the home, arrested and handcuffed the defendant. United States v. Barnett, 989 F.2d 546, 555 (1st Cir. 1993). I don't even feel a need to comment on the absurdity of this.
Update Aug. 14 - Ann Bartow, in Anyone Who Blogs From Work Needs to Read This, points to an Orin Kerr post about a new Ninth Circuit opinion on workplace privacy, United States v. Zeigler. Orin discusses the difference between the public workplace (public library employees fit in here) and the private workplace (corporate and other private library employees fit in there)... which he indicates were mostly obliterated in the decision. See http://www.orinkerr.com/2006/08/09/ninth-circuit-mostly-eliminates-private-sector-workplace-privacy-rights-in-computers/
Wilson v. Moreau, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55310 (August 4, 2006) is online at http://www.rid.uscourts.gov/Opinions/Recent/08032006_1-03CV0575L_WILSON_V_MOREAU_P.pdf
Rhode Island General Laws
Section 38-2-2. Definitions.
As used in this chapter:
(1) "Agency" or "public body" shall mean any executive, legislative, judicial, regulatory, or administrative body of the state, or any political subdivision thereof; including, but not limited to, any department, division, agency, commission, board, office, bureau, authority, any school, fire, or water district, or other agency of Rhode Island state or local government which exercises governmental functions, any authority as defined in § 42-35-1(b), or any other public or private agency, person, partnership, corporation, or business entity acting on behalf of and/or in place of any public agency.
(2) "Chief administrative officer" means the highest authority of the public body as defined in subsection (a) of this section.
(3) "Public business" means any matter over which the public body has supervision, control, jurisdiction, or advisory power.
(4) (i) "Public record" or "public records" shall mean all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, tapes, photographs, films, sound recordings, magnetic or other tapes, electronic data processing records, computer stored data (including electronic mail messages, except specifically for any electronic mail messages of or to elected officials with or relating to those they represent and correspondence of or to elected officials in their official capacities) or other material regardless of physical form or characteristics made or received pursuant to law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business by any agency. For the purposes of this chapter, the following records shall not be deemed public:
(U) Library records which by themselves or when examined with other public records, would reveal the identity of the library user requesting, checking out, or using any library materials.
(ii) However, any reasonably segregable portion of a public record excluded by this section shall be available for public inspections after the deletion of the information which is the basis of the exclusion, if disclosure of the segregable portion does not violate the intent of this section.
(5) "Supervisor of the regulatory body" means the chief or head of a section having enforcement responsibility for a particular statute or set of rules and regulations within a regulatory agency.
(6) "Prevailing plaintiff" means and shall include those persons and entities deemed prevailing parties pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988.