Our Constitution guarantees that that government will make "no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or the press." The importance of this right cannot be overstated, as Benjamin Franklin famously said, "[w]hoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech." A few short weeks ago the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed this important right by protecting government employees from termination when speaking honestly about their jobs.
In Lane v. Franks, No. 13-483 (U.S. June 19, 2014), Edward Lane was a director of a youth training program at Central Alabama Community College. At the time Lane was hired by the college, the program faced significant financial difficulties. These difficulties prompted Lane to conduct a full audit. This audit revealed a state representative had not been working even though she was on the program's payroll. On account of her failure to work, Lane fired the state representative and was subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury about the state representative's behavior. Shortly after providing testimony, Lane was terminated from his job as program director. After his termination, Lane sued claiming he was improperly terminated for his testimony against the state representative.
The law protects government employees when they speak "on a matter of public concern." The issue presented to the Supreme Court was whether Lane was speaking on a matter of public concern when testifying about the audit he did as part of his job. Put simply, under previous case law from lower courts, Lane would not be protected if he was simply acting as an employee and testifying about what he learned in his capacity as program director.
In ruling on the case, the Supreme Court expanded First Amendment protection by clarifying government employees can be protected when speaking on matters of public concern-even if the information is learned during their employment. According to the Court, "our precedents . . . have recognized that speech by public employees on subject matter related to their employment holds special value precisely because those employees gain knowledge on matter of public concern through their employment." "Accordingly," the court continued, "it is essential that [government employees] be able to speak out freely on such questions without fear of retaliatory dismissal."
This decision serves to solidify the protections provided government employees for free speech. There remain exceptions to these free speech protections. However, government employees do not check their rights at the door. They are afforded certain protections when speaking on matter related to their jobs, their politics, or matters concerning the public. We hope the Courts continue to expand the laws to protect more employees for speaking their minds.
If you are a government employee who feels you have been terminated in violation of your free speech rights, please feel free to call one of our lawyers to discuss your situation. You can read more about the Lane decision by clicking here.