Court sides with college in privacy case

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BOSTON (AP) – A worker at Salem State College had no reasonable expectation of privacy when she used a rear work area to change her clothes and apply an ointment for a severe sunburn to her chest, the state’s highest court ruled Thursday.

Gail Nelson, who was working as a secretary at the college in 1995, sued the college for invasion of privacy after a co-worker discovered a hidden camera that was taping the portion of the office where Nelson unbuttoned her blouse to apply the ointment.

The Supreme Judicial Court sided with the college, agreeing with a lower court ruling that the college was within its rights to videotape the area without notifying workers first.

“Despite all of the plaintiff’s efforts discreetly to conduct acts of a very personal and private nature in the office, in this case, there was no objectively reasonable expectation of privacy,” the court ruled. “Even if the plaintiff thought she was alone, there was no absolute guarantee, including when she locked the door to apply her medication or change her clothes for the evening. The office was public.”

The camera had been installed after the college became concerned about possible unauthorized access to the office after hours. None of the preserved tapes showed Nelson changing clothes or applying ointment.

The court chastised the college for letting the camera run continuously, including during the work day.

“There is no question the defendants’ twenty-four hour video surveillance of the entire office was unnecessarily broad for the limited investigation of alleged criminal activity occurring in the office after hours,” the ruling said.

Even so, the court ruled, Nelson shouldn’t have expected privacy in that part of the office.

Nelson’s lawyer Jeffrey M. Feuer said the ruling was not only a blow for his client, but for other workers.

Feuer said the court “basically said that employees are not entitled to privacy unless they have exclusive control over a work area and the work area is a private one” – such as their own private office.

“The court also failed to recognize the difference between being seen by or monitored by your boss and being secretly videotaped. The camera is an unblinking eye, it never looks away and it records for posterity everything you do,” he said. “That’s different than the boss walking by your desk or office and glancing in.”

Dr. Stanley P. Cahill, executive vice president for Salem State College said the school was glad the case was settled.

“We are very pleased with the result of this particular case and we are glad it is over for all involved,” he said.

John Reinstein, legal director for the ACLU of Massachusetts, called the ruling a significant setback for privacy in the workplace. The ACLU served as co-counsel on the SJC appeal.

“It is unfortunate that the Court essentially found that there was no privacy violation under either the Fourth Amendment or under the statutory right of privacy where a party is subjected to covert video surveillance, so long as the surveillance takes place in a location where they might be observed by others,” he said.

The ACLU is backing a bill that would regulate electronic monitoring, insist that companies notify employees of such surveillance and prohibit any monitoring in private areas.

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