Supreme Court Rules That First Amendment Protects Employee’s Truthful Testimony

Chalk this one up to “this wasn’t already settled law?”  Yes, it was only last week that the US Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment to the Constitution protects an employee’s right to testify truthfully in a court case.

In 2006, Central Alabama Community College hired Edward Lane to be the Director of a statewide program for underprivileged youth.  An audit revealed that Alabama State Representative Suzanne Schmitz had a “no show” job at the program.  Lane fired Schmitz and testified for the government under subpoena twice, resulting in Schmitz’s conviction for mail fraud and theft.  Approximately seven months later, the program Lane directed was eliminated and Lane sued college president Steve Franks for violating the First Amendment by firing him in retaliation for his testimony against Schmitz.

After losing in the District Court and 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, Lane appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.  On June 19, 2014 the Court, in Lane v. Franks,  unanimously held that when a public employee testifies truthfully under oath, and testifying is outside the scope of that employee’s ordinary job duties, the First Amendment protects that employee from employer retaliation.

The Court emphasized the value of speech by public employees, especially when that speech is used to help root out public corruption.  Public employees are “uniquely qualified to comment” on “matters concerning government policies that are of interest to the public at large.”  To hold differently, the Court found, “would place public employees who witness corruption in an impossible position, torn between the obligation to testify truthfully and the desire to avoid retaliation and keep their jobs.”

It is important to note that while this decision by the Court is a victory for the free speech rights of public employees, it left open the question of whether public employees who testify regularly in court as part of their jobs are protected by the First Amendment.  Specifically, police officers, crime scene technicians and laboratory analysts, the Court cautioned, are not automatically protected.  The courts will continue to apply a balancing test to those employees which will analyze “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.”  In other words, the Court held out the possibility that circumstances exist in which a public employer does not violate the First Amendment when it retaliates against a Police Officer because that officer testifies truthfully under oath.

This significant caveat to an otherwise pro-employee decision shows, once again, the need for strong unions.  While the Supreme Court might conjure situations where the first amendment does not protect truthful testimony, your collective bargaining agreement’s just cause requirement should certainly protect you from discipline for simply satisfying your obligation to testify truthfully.

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