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What Free Speech Rights Do Government Employees Have?

From the time many of us learn about the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, one of the first things we learn is that our freedom of speech is protected by the first amendment. The rule seems simple enough and straight-forward. However, when it comes to commenting on things they learn at work, government employees may be working under a different set of rules.

A case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court may have far-reaching implications on the rights of millions of government employees.

Edward Lane was a director of a youth training program run out of Central Alabama Community College. Upon being hired, Lane conducted an audit of his department to determine where there was waste and what could improve. He found that there was a “ghost employee,” who was essentially earning a pay check without doing any work. The employee was Alabama State Legislator Suzanne Schmitz, and Lane was warned to leave the situation alone because of her influence.

However, after Schmitz repeatedly refused to show up to work, Lane opted to fire the state legislator. This prompted an FBI investigation into public corruption in Alabama, and Lane was subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury and then at two of Schmitz’s fraud trials. Following his initial testimony, the president of the college fired Lane, who responded by suing for retaliation.

Lane sued, claiming his First Amendment right to free speech had been violated when the college president retaliated. However, a federal appeals court ruled that because of its own previous rulings and a 2006 Supreme Court decision (Garcetti v. Ceballos), government employees had no free speech rights when it involved information they learned as a result of their job, meaning that a normal citizen would not have access to the information.

Despite the fact that the decision was based on a previous ruling (5-4 decision), the U.S. Supreme Court seems to be backing off of that position. Chief Justice John Roberts asked: “If you want to keep the corruption secret and he testifies truthfully and reveals it, can he be disciplined for that?”

Justice Anthony Kennedy, the author of the 2006 decision, even raised his own doubts about the ruling, saying that he “just can’t imagine,” a situation where a subpoenaed testimony wouldn’t be protected under the first amendment.

The decision is expected in the summer, and will either be a big blow to whistleblowers around the nation or a reaffirmation of their rights.

The attorneys at Cohen, Placitella & Roth are dedicated to protecting the rights of whistleblowers everywhere. If you’ve been retaliated against for exposing a wrong, contact us today to discuss your case and schedule a free consultation.

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