The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in the case of Rehberg v. Paulk that one who sends an e-mail has no “expectation of privacy” in its content, once it is sent to a third party—-and that third party can even be the internet service provider. Which means, in essence, that e-mails aren’t private any more, if this ruling stands.
Here you have a good example of how courts can re-define formal ethical standards on multiple planes with a few words. This means that one of the most influential Federal Courts has given the green light to any government agency or employer who chooses to read your e-mails. It may well be that lawyers who send documents containing confidential client information have breached their duty to protect confidences. It means that if your room-mate reads confidential messages on your laptop without your permission, the law says its your fault, not his.
This is the point where ethics, manners and the Golden Rule becomes more important than ever. The court case may change the law, and it may be legal to read other people’s e-mails without permission, but it’s still not right.
For an excellent scholarly dissent from the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling by Prof. Orrin Kerr, see his argument on the Volokh Conspiracy.
[Many thanks to Prof. Monroe Freedman whose post at the Legal Ethics Forum alerted me to both the case and Prof. Kerr’s critique.]