Supreme Court reinstates First Amendment claim of public employee fired for court testimony

In a unanimous opinion today in Lane v. Franks, the Court held that an employee who was fired by a public employer for giving subpoenaed judicial testimony about his state-funded program could maintain a claim for First Amendment retaliation. The key issue in the case was whether testifying was part of the employee's job responsibilities (and therefore not a viable basis for a First Amendment claim) or whether the employee, in testifying, was speaking "as a citizen" (and therefore entitled to First Amendment protection). Emphasizing the importance of truthful testimony to the judicial system, the Court held the latter:

Truthful testimony under oath by a public employee outside the scope of his ordinary job duties is speech as a citizen for First Amendment purposes. That is so even when the testimony relates to his public employment or concerns information learned during that employment. . . . Sworn testimony in judicial proceedings is a quintessential example of speech as a citizen for a simple reason: Anyone who testifies in court bears an obligation, to the court and society at large, to tell the truth.

This is an important victory for whistleblowers and a narrowing of a prior decision in the area of public employee speech claims, Garcetti v. Ceballos. Some courts had interpreted Garcetti to preclude First Amendment retaliation claims based on speech regarding one's employment. The Court made clear today that for a public employee's speech to be outside First Amendment protection, it must be uttered as part of the ordinary duties of the job, not merely pertaining to the job:

The mere fact that a citizen’s speech concerns information acquired by virtue of his public employment does not transform that speech into employee—rather than citizen—speech. . . . [S]peech by public employees on subject matter related to their employment holds special value precisely because those employees gain knowledge of matters of public concern through their employment.

Unfortunately, the Court also held that the employee in this case cannot recover damages because the First Amendment right was not clearly established (at least in his judicial circuit) before today's decision.

Still, a welcome interpretation of the First Amendment that will benefit both public employees and the judicial process.

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