NHL players asked by coach to see photos. Was that legal?

The NHL Players' Association said it's investigating an alleged violation of players' privacy, but do everyday workers have the same rights?
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock yells instructions during an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Posted at 4:37 PM, Sep 19, 2023

The Columbus Blue Jackets announced that Mike Babcock on Sunday had resigned as the team's head coach, prior to the start of the season and  without ever coaching a single game for the franchise. He was hired in July to replace Brad Larsen, who was fired after two losing seasons with the squad. 

Details behind the resignation

Babcock resigned after former NHL player and "Spittin Chiclets" podcast host Paul Bissonnette claimed on his show that Babcock demanded players turn over their personal cellphones when he was hired. 

Both Babcock and team captain Boone Jenner issued statements downplaying the allegations made by Bissonnette. 

"While meeting with our players and staff I asked them to share, off their phones, family pictures as part of the process of getting to know them better. There was absolutely nothing more to it than that," Babcock said. "The way this was portrayed on the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast was a gross misrepresentation of those meetings and extremely offensive.

"These meetings have been very important and beneficial, not only for me but for our players and staff as well, and to have them depicted like this is irresponsible and completely inaccurate."

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Jenner also confirmed that he was asked to share photos, but said he was happy to do so. 

"While meeting with Babs he asked me about my family and where I’m from, my upcoming wedding and hockey-related stuff. He then asked if I had pictures of my family and I was happy to share some with him. He showed me pictures of his family," Jenner said. "I thought it was a great first meeting and good way for us to start to build a relationship. To have this blown out of proportion is truly disappointing."

But the NHL Players' Association said after Jenner and Babcock released statements that it sent its executive director and assistant executive director to Columbus to investigate Bissonnette's allegations. 

The Blue Jackets ownership group also released a statement saying it was "deeply frustrated and disappointed by the events of the past week. "

What if my boss asks to see my personal information?

Unlike NHL players who have a union to back them, the majority of U.S. workers don't belong to a union. According to Camille Hébert, a professor at Ohio State University who teaches about labor law, federal statutes generally don't protect workers when employers request personal information, such as social media passwords. 

Hébert said, however, some states have adopted laws that prohibit employers from requesting access to personal digital information, such as cellphone photos or social media passwords. The National Conference of State Legislatures says there are 27 states that have adopted laws that apply to employers. Ohio, where the Blue Jackets play, is not among the states. 

"Some employees, job applicants and students have expressed concerns about requests from employers or educational institutions for access to usernames or passwords for personal social media accounts," the National Conference of State Legislatures said. "They consider such requests to be an invasion of employees’ privacy, akin to reading a diary or requiring a visit to their home."

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Although there might not be a specific federal law that prohibits employers from asking for personal digital info, Hébert said workers still have a right to privacy. 

"The biggest problem is the law doesn't work the way most people think the law works," she said. 

"There's a claim called a common law right of privacy, which Ohio does recognize and the question would be whether this is a violation of that," she added. "I would argue that it is." 

She said she advises workers not to use their personal phone for work purposes as employers should have no business gaining access to personal phones or passwords if it's never used for work purposes. 

"Does the employer have a justification?  I want to get to know your family just because I am curious about what your pictures might look like," Hébert said. "Like those just aren't justifications."

She said that employers are free to look for photos and messages sent publicly, but those sent privately could be different. 

"You don't have a right to privacy [with] things that you broadcast on the internet, is what courts generally say," she added. "But if they are private pictures, there are pictures on your phone that you have not shared publicly, then sort of the question is, does an employer have a right to it? I think the answer is normally no, unless they have a really good reason."

Even with privacy laws, however, workers face difficulties in challenging employers who might seek personal information. 

"I think the answer is that employees unfortunately have relatively few privacy rights in the workplace because courts have not been very protective of those rights," she said. 

Which is one reason why Hébert said she is a supporter of employment unions.