TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Thursday, April 19, 2018

When Can A University Read Faculty Email?

Gmail (2014)Inside Higher Ed, Who’s Reading Your Email?:

In 2016, two faculty members at the University of Rochester filed a sexual harassment complaint against their colleague T. Florian Jaeger.

The two faculty members, Richard Aslin and Jessica Cantlon, said they were whistle-blowers, acting to protect their students from a potentially predatory professor. They expected support from their institution, but, they said, they didn't get it.

After insisting that the university’s two internal investigations into Jaeger (which both found no evidence of wrongdoing) had been flawed, Aslin and Cantlon said the university administration turned on them. Both faculty members had their university email accounts searched by administrators in an apparent attempt to find information that might be used to discredit them, they said.

The searches took place without their knowledge or consent and were likely in violation of the university’s IT privacy policy, said Aslin. “Of course, the university has the authority to look at emails under appropriate circumstances, such as if there were suspicion of a crime, but we were whistle-blowers,” said Aslin. He described the email search as a “creepy” invasion of privacy with “no good cause.”

Perhaps more troubling than the search was what the institution did with the messages, said Cantlon. Cantlon only found out that her email had been searched after her department chair, Greg DeAngelis, confronted her with a pile of printouts containing messages between Cantlon and several colleagues that criticized the way DeAngelis had handled Jaeger.

Cantlon said she couldn’t think of a good reason why DeAngelis would have been forwarded these emails, other than in an attempt to try to sour their relationship and create tension in the department. “It was malicious and underhanded,” said Cantlon.

Both Cantlon and Aslin were involved in filing a complaint with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission late last summer, and they recently filed an associated lawsuit against Rochester for sexual harassment-related retaliation.

An independent report into the university’s handling of the Jaeger case suggested that the institution should review its procedures for searching faculty email accounts, noting that news of searches conducted on Aslin and Cantlon’s email had “upset and concerned many members of the university community.”

As a private institution, Rochester has a lot of autonomy over its technology privacy rules. All employers have the right to check their employees’ business-related email accounts. But most higher education institutions (including Rochester) pledge to only do this in special circumstances, such as if there is a security threat or suspicion that someone has committed a crime.

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Every University has buried deep in its e-mail User Agreement a clause granting it "inspection rights'> Mine does but I do not believe it has ever need used/ Same with employer's systems. IF YOU NEED SECRECY USE AN OUTSIDE PROVIDER.

Posted by: Joseph Olson | Apr 19, 2018 11:44:02 AM

"All employers have the right to check their employees’ business-related email accounts." That's all that needs to be said. Faculty are employees. They take the University's paycheck. Nuff Said.

Posted by: Steve | Apr 19, 2018 1:39:06 PM