Friday, June 20, 2014

US Supreme Court: Public Employee Testimony Protected By First Amendment

On June 19, 2014, in Lane v. Franks, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled an employee’s testimony was protected by the First Amendment because it was a citizen’s speech on a matter of public concern.

Edward Lane directed a program for underprivileged youth at Central Alabama Community College. Lane audited the program’s expenses and found an employee, Suzanne Schmitz, had not been reporting for work. Lane terminated Schmitz’ employment and testified against her in federal court. Schmitz was sentenced to 30 months on charges of mail fraud and theft.

After the trial, the college’s president, Franks, fired 29 employees, including Lane. Franks claimed the action was an attempt to fix the college’s budget. He then rehired all but two of the employees. Franks did not rehire Lane.

In response, Lane filed a civil rights lawsuit. Lane claimed Franks violated the First Amendment by firing him in retaliation for testifying against Schmitz. If a public employee speaks in the course of their ordinary duties, the employee is not speaking as a citizen for First Amendment purposes. But in this case, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled Lane’s sworn testimony was outside the scope of his normal duties and entitled to First Amendment protection.

The Court also ruled the testimony was on a matter of public concern.  If a public employee speaks on a matter of public concern, the government must have adequate justification for treating the employee differently. Whether speech is a matter of public concern turns on the content, form, and context of the speech.

Here, the Court held corruption in a public program and misuse of state funds are matters of significant public concern. Speech by public employees related to their employment holds special value because those employees gain knowledge of matters of public concern through their employment.

Because the Court ruled the testimony was a public concern, it then decided if the college lacked adequate justification for firing Lane. The college did not assert or demonstrate any government interest for their treatment of Lane. Therefore, the Court reversed and remanded for further proceedings.