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Supreme Court bolsters First Amendment protections for public employees

The Supreme Court issued a decision recently that bolsters First Amendment protections for public employees.  The case is captioned Lane v. Franks, and it was a unanimous decision.

In this case, Edward Lane, the plaintiff, testified at a criminal trial regarding an individual he had fired regarding the events leading to that individual’s termination.  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.

The former employee was being prosecuted for corruption.  Lane himself was fired, arguably in retaliation for his testimony.  Lane brought suit saying that his testimony was protected by the First Amendment. 

The critical issue was whether Garcetti v. Ceballos, the Supreme Court decision from 2006, which held that "when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes."  The Garcetti decision has posed difficulties in protecting employee speech because it has been interpreted by some lower courts as removing protections for public employees who are speaking on matters that are relevant to, or touch upon, their "official duties."   In this case, the employer argued that Lane's testimony was on a subject matter that pertained to his official work duties (including supervision of his employees) and, under Garcetti, would not be protected.

The IAFF's position, and that of other public employees' groups, is that the Garcetti decision was wrongly decided, or at the very least that public employees should continue to enjoy First Amendment protections to speak on matters of public concern for speech made outside an official capacity.  If Lane's testimony were held not to be protected, it would have been a blow to the IAFF's position.

Boosting the IAFF's position on Garcetti, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion by Justice Sotomayor, holding that “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.  The critical question under Garcetti is whether the speech at issue is itself ordinarily within the scope of an employee’s duties, not whether it merely concerns those duties.” 

This decision will offer some well-needed protection against the ongoing attacks on public employee speech.

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