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Public employees gain free speech Supreme Court victory

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Supreme Court of the United States Phil Roeder—Getty Images/Flickr RF

The U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts has gained a reputation for defending the First Amendment rights of corporations. On Thursday, it recognized that those same rights apply to public employees when they give sworn testimony.

In a unanimous decision written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court ruled that public employees who give sworn testimony that falls outside their everyday job duties are protected against retaliation by the First Amendment.

The decision came in a case brought by Edward Lane, a former director of a program for youth at a community college in Alabama, against his former boss Steve Franks. Lane claimed that Franks fired him after Lane delivered sworn testimony against a former colleague who was being investigated for and was later charged with fraud.

Lane sued Franks, claiming that his firing was a retaliatory act that violated his First Amendment right to free speech.

The case ended up before the Supreme Court because Lane appealed a decision by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which found that Lane testified against his former colleague as a government employee–not as a citizen. To rightfully claim retaliation for protected speech under the First Amendment, the appellate court ruled, a public employee must show that he spoke as a citizen on a matter of public concern.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled that Lane had done just that.

The Supreme Court had to address whether the speech in question–Lane’s testimony against his former colleague–constituted speech by a citizen on a matter of public concern. “It clearly is,” wrote Justice Sotomayor. “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.”

While the court found that Lane’s speech was protected by the First Amendment, Justice Sotomayor warned that her ruling doesn’t rubber stamp First Amendment protection in every similar circumstance. “A public employee’s sworn testimony is not categorically entitled to First Amendment protection simply because it is speech as a citizen on a matter of public concern.” If the public employee discloses sensitive information during testimony, there’s a question of whether government interest outweighs an individual’s First Amendment right.

What can be applied more broadly, Justice Sotomayor wrote, is the notion that “public employees do not renounce their citizenship when they accept employment […] this court has cautioned time and again that public employers may not condition employment on the relinquishment of constitutional rights.”