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Supreme Court Sides With Whistleblower In Retaliation Case

In a case over retaliation against a public employee who was fired after testifying about corruption, the Supreme Court says the man gave testimony as a concerned citizen and should not have been punished. The decision was unanimous, overturning lower courts.

In the case of Lane v. Franks, Edward Lane sued Central Alabama Community College President Steve Franks after Lane was fired from his job leading the school's program for at-risk youth. Lane had determined a state representative was on the program's payroll despite doing no work for the group. Franks fired him after Lane testified in an ensuing FBI case against the elected official.

The Supreme Court justices ruled that the First Amendment "protects a public employee who provided truthful sworn testimony, compelled by subpoena, outside the course of his ordinary job responsibilities."

Their decision will send part of the case back to the lower courts, as the justices said Franks, who has since retired, is entitled to limited immunity for acting in an official capacity. In that portion of their ruling, they agreed with the lower courts' decisions. The justices are sending Lane's case against the college's current interim leader (who inherited the "official" portion of the lawsuit) back to the lower courts.

Back in 2006, Lane was the director of Central Alabama Community College's statewide Community Intensive Training for Youth program when he conducted an audit that found state Rep. Susan Schmitz was being paid without reporting for work.

The Supreme Court's summary tells us what happened next:

"Lane eventually terminated Schmitz' employment. Shortly thereafter, federal authorities indicted Schmitz on charges of mail fraud and theft concerning a program receiving federal funds. Lane testified, under subpoena, regarding the events that led to his terminating Schmitz. Schmitz was convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison. Meanwhile, CITY was experiencing significant budget shortfalls. Respondent Franks, then CACC's president, terminated Lane along with 28 other employees in a claimed effort to address the financial difficulties. A few days later, however, Franks rescinded all but 2 of the 29 terminations — those of Lane and one other employee."

The firing, which came in 2009, led Lane to file a lawsuit against Franks in both his individual and official capacities, saying he had violated Lane's First Amendment protections. Lane's attorneys sought damages and his reinstatement.

Before today's ruling, two lower courts sided with Franks and the college, saying Lane had acted in an official capacity in firing Schmitz — and was essentially doing the same thing when he testified at her trial. As a result, those courts held, Lane couldn't claim the protections of the First Amendment.

But the Supreme Court disagreed today, ruling that Lane testified "as a citizen on a matter of public concern" and calling sworn testimony at a trial "a quintessential example of citizen speech for the simple reason that anyone who testifies in court bears an obligation, to the court and society at large, to tell the truth."

The court's opinion, which could add a new wrinkle to how whistleblowers are treated in the U.S., was written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor; a concurring opinion was written by Justice Clarence Thomas, who was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito.

"Almost 50 years ago, this Court declared that citizens do not surrender their First Amendment rights by accepting public employment," Sotomayor wrote. "Rather, the First Amendment protection of a public employee's speech depends on a careful balance 'between the interests of the [employee], as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern and the interest of the State, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees,'" citing the landmark 1968 case Pickering v. Board of Education.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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