Public employees do not surrender their First Amendment rights by accepting public employment. That was the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday, when it issued a decision holding that the First Amendment protected a government employee who provided truthful sworn testimony outside the course of his ordinary job duties. In Lane v. Franks, (USSCT, June 19, 2014), the director of youth program operated by a public community college conducted a payroll audit, discovered that an employee (who also happened to be a state representative) had not been reporting to work, and terminated her employment. Shortly thereafter, the representative was indicted and then convicted on various charges, including theft for receiving federal funds. The director was terminated along with 28 other employees, but a few days later all but 2 of the terminated employees were reinstated. The director sued the college and his supervisors, claiming they retaliated against him for testifying against the state representative in violation of his First Amendment rights.
The district court and 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the director, finding that he was not entitled to First Amendment protections because he spoke as an employee acting pursuant to his official duties, not as a public citizen. The Supreme Court disagreed, finding that the director's sworn testimony was outside the scope of his ordinary job duties and, therefore, entitled to First Amendment protections. Specifically, the Court determined that his speech was as a citizen on a matter of public concern (corruption and misuse of state funds is a matter of public concern).
The Court noted that a public employee's employee's right to speak on issues of public concern must be balanced against the government's interest in promoting the efficiency of public services it provides through its employees. Here, the Court emphasized that the director was compelled to testify on this matter by subpoena, and his testimony did not relate to his official duties (although the Court acknowledged that the testimony did relate to his employment). Because the government interest was non-existent in this case, the director's speech was entitled to protection under the First Amendment.
Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink