Workplace e-mails should, in extreme cases, be subject to searches. The employer owns the accounts; if workers want full privacy, they should get personal accounts. As a practical matter, however, workers should feel free to send e-mails from their office accounts without having to worry about the prying eyes of their bosses. But when Harvard administrators became upset over news leaks about the university’s cheating scandal, they wasted little time in checking the subject lines of e-mails sent by 16 residential deans. The administrators say they were concerned about potential breaches in student confidentiality; but there had been no such breaches in the news leaks. Much more likely, Harvard’s leaders were concerned about their own reputations and that of the university. The search was inappropriate — and out of step with the university’s responsibility to protect free expression.
The rush to check workplace e-mails was especially surprising because administrators acted with such cautious deliberation through the months of investigation of the cheating scandal itself; respect for the privacy of the dozens of suspected cheaters was an evident concern. Yet the same administration showed far too little concern for the privacy of residential deans who did nothing to merit the scrutiny except receive a confidential e-mail.