Supreme Court extends speech protections for public employees

Thu Jun 19, 2014 1:34pm EDT

A network television news camera sits ready outside the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington June 16, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

A network television news camera sits ready outside the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington June 16, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

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(Reuters) - The Supreme Court on Thursday broadened free-speech protections for public-sector employees when they testify at trials, a decision that could give more rights to public workers who assist in government corruption cases.

In a 9-0 vote, the court sided with Edward Lane, a former director of a government-backed community education organization in Alabama, who said he was fired from his job after testifying against a former state legislator at two criminal trials.

Lane had said that the former legislator collected a salary at the community organization, but never came to work.

Two lower courts ruled that Lane's testimony was not entitled to free-speech protection because it was made as part of his job, throwing out Lane's retaliation case.

In a decision written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the high court said that Lane's testimony was protected by the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.

Sotomayor wrote that "there is considerable value... in encouraging, rather than inhibiting, speech by public employees."

The National Whistleblowers Center praised the decision for "giving a green light" to public employees to help expose political corruption and fraud.

On a related issue, the court ruled that the former community college president whom Lane said had dismissed him from his job, enjoyed immunity from a legal claim brought by Lane had brought.

Mark Waggoner, who represented Steve Franks, the former college president sued by Lane, said, "We are pleased that the Supreme Court affirmed unanimously on the qualified immunity issue."

Lane's attorney, Tejinder Singh, said that the decision "sends a strong message that employees should feel free to do as Mr. Lane did, to speak out when they see corruption, without fear of retaliation."

The case is Lane v. Franks et al, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 13-483.

(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Grant McCool)

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