The rights of employees under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act have been given quite the digital treatment over the last few years. In its newest decision issued on December 11, 2014, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that “employee use of email for statutorily protected communications on nonworking time must presumptively be permitted by employers who have chosen to give employees access to their email systems.” The full decision can be found here.

In Purple Communications, Inc. and Communications Workers of America, AFL–CIO. Cases 21–CA–0951 51, 21–RC–091531, and 21–RC–091584, the Board overturned its previous decision in Register Guard, 351 NLRB 1110 (2007), which held that employees do not have a right to use their employers’ email systems for Section 7 purposes. But, as seen in recent years, the Board has embraced the digital age and has concluded that employee Section 7 rights include everything from social media to, in this case, company email.

Like most companies, Purple Communications, Inc., has an “Internet, Intranet, Voicemail and Electronic Communication Policy” in its employee handbook. Among other things, this policy prohibits employees from using the “computer, internet, voicemail and email systems, and other Company equipment” to engage in “activities on behalf of organizations or persons with no professional or business affiliation with [the] Company” or “sending uninvited email of a personal nature.” The Communications Workers of America filed an unfair labor charge regarding this policy, and the Administrative Law Judge found the policy lawful under Register Guard, dismissing the allegations. This new decision by the NLRB then followed.

In overturning Register Guard, the Board stated that email has “effectively become a natural gathering place pervasively used for employee-to-employee conversations” and the fact that this “gathering place” is virtual does not undermine the role that email plays in Section 7 protected workplace discussions. In fact, the Board concluded that “email’s effectiveness as a mechanism for quickly sharing information and views increases its importance to employee communication,” especially in the seven years since Register Guard was issued. Interestingly, the Board relied on empirical evidence regarding the rise in “teleworking” and email usage for all work functions, at the physical workplace and remotely, to demonstrate that email has become a significant platform for employee communication. Accordingly, it was held that email’s use for Section 7 activity must be protected under the NLRA. The Board will no longer “perpetuate” an “outmoded assessment of workplace realities.”

The Board attempted to preemptively address employers’ concerns about the ruling, by stating that this decision is a “limited one,” in that it addresses only email and not any other types of electronic communication systems. Moreover, businesses are not prevented from monitoring their computers and email systems for legitimate management purposes. Finally, the Board stated that an employer may justify a ban on non-work use of its email system if it can point to “special circumstances” that necessitate the ban, including system overload, the nature of the business, and excessive costs. Regardless, the Board’s dissenting members apparently are not convinced, arguing that this decision will lead to significant problems down the road.

Interestingly, the Board fails to directly address the decision’s effect on other types of policies that could be affected, such as non-solicitation and non-distribution policies. The Board distanced itself from the issue, stating that “we do not find it appropriate to treat email communication as either solicitation or distribution per se.” The dissent took issue with this stance and predicts that this decision will make it very difficult to determine what communications violate lawful restrictions against solicitation in the future.

Although the Board did not outright declare Purple Communication’s electronic communications policy unlawful, employers should be wary of overly broad or restrictive electronic communications policies. As with the onslaught of social media decisions and subsequent policy revisions, employers should take a hard look at their electronic communications policies in light of this decision and consider whether their policies put them at risk in this evolving digital age.