In a decision that could give more rights to public workers who speak out against government corruption, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday ruled unanimously in favor of whistleblowers. The court decided that when employees of public entities testify in court, they do so as a citizens, not as representatives of their employers.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the decision, declaring, “there is considerable value … in encouraging, rather than inhibiting, speech by public employees.”
Edward Lane, who worked at Central Alabama Community College, fired Alabama state Rep. Suzanne Schmitz after discovering she was on the payroll despite not doing any work. Lane testified in two federal criminal trails against Schmitz, and she later served 13 months in prison.
Lane claimed that after testifying, he faced retaliation from college administrators. Steve Franks, the community college president, sent out 29 termination letters but later rescinded all but two, including Lane’s.
Lane sued, but the lower courts ruled that he had acted in an official capacity when testifying at Schmitz’s trial, just as he had acted in official capacity when firing Schmitz.
Sotomayor, however, wrote the First Amendment “protects a public employee who provided truthful sworn testimony, compelled by subpoena, outside the course of his ordinary job responsibilities.”
The court remained silent on First Amendment protections for some public employees, such as police officers, crime scene technicians, and laboratory analysts, because for them testifying is a “routine and critical part of their employment duties,” rather than outside of their ordinary job duties.
The majority opinion called sworn testimony at a trial “a quintessential example of speech as a citizen for a simple reason: Anyone who testifies in court bears an obligation, to the court and society at large, to tell the truth.”
Stephen Kohn, executive director of the National Whistleblower Center, predicted the decision will have a “wide impact” on investigations of securities, banking, and tax fraud.
“This ruling gives a green light to all public employees who have information concerning official corruption and fraud and want to expose these crimes,” Kohn told the Associated Press.
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case earlier this year, asking the court to make it clear that a public employee has a First Amendment right to speak freely outside the workplace.
“We see all too often that public universities and colleges place political litmus tests on employees,” said ADF senior legal counsel David Hacker. “But as the Supreme Court has affirmed time and time again, Americans do not lose their First Amendment freedoms when they accept a government job.”