U.S. Supreme Court

First Amendment protects government worker's truthful testimony about public corruption, SCOTUS says

A public employee who provides truthful testimony about misuse of state funds pursuant to a subpoena is protected by the First Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously (PDF) on the First Amendment issue for Edward Lane, director of an Alabama program for troubled youth. Because Lane’s testimony about a fired employee was not part of his ordinary job duties, he was speaking as a citizen on a matter of public concern and he was protected by the First Amendment, the court said.

Lane had fired a state representative on the payroll who appeared to be doing no work, though Lane was warned by his superiors that firing the lawmaker could result in serious repercussions. Lane testified about the firing before a grand jury and at trial. Lane was himself fired after the lawmaker’s conviction, and he sued for alleged retaliation.

The Whistleblowers Protection Blog called the ruling in Lane v. Franks “a landmark whistleblower decision.”

It was not a total victory for Lane, however. The Supreme Court found that qualified immunity protected Lane’s former supervisor, who was sued for damages in his individual capacity, because the First Amendment right was not clearly established by court precedent at the time. Lane’s claim for equitable relief against another official was remanded.

The bulk of Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s opinion for the court concerned the First Amendment issue. “The mere fact that a citizen’s speech concerns information acquired by virtue of his public employment does not transform that speech into employee—rather than citizen—speech,” she said.

A contrary ruling, Sotomayor said, “would place public employees who witness corruption in an impossible position, torn between the obligation to testify truthfully and the desire to avoid retaliation and keep their jobs.”

Sotomayor distinguished the 2006 U.S. Supreme Court case Garcetti v. Cabellas, which found no First Amendment protection for an internal memorandum written by a prosecutor. In that case, the court said the memo was part of the prosecutor’s ordinary job responsibilities and constituted unprotected employee speech.

Justice Clarence Thomas concurred in an opinion joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr. Thomas stressed that the court opinion did not address situations in which public employees such as police officers and lab technicians testify as part of their regular jobs.

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