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Workplace First Amendment Cases in the News: Part 1

Federal Courts recently decided two cases involving public employee First Amendment issues. In Lane v. Franks, the U.S. Supreme Court settled an important question of law –whether public employers who testify truthfully pursuant to a subpoena are protected from retaliation by their employer under the First Amendment. In Pekowsky v. Yonkers Bd. of Educ., Judge Cote of the Southern District of New York held that a union representative’s advocating on behalf of other union members was protected First Amendment speech. This two part series discusses the legal issues presented in those cases and the decisions’ implications. Part 1 discusses Lane v. Franks.

Lane v. Franks

Years ago, the Supreme Court set down a rule of law that citizens who work for the government do not automatically lose their constitutional rights. The Court, however, noted that the government, as an employer, has an interest in regulating its workplace. Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that when an employee seeks First Amendment protection for speech made in the workplace, Courts must balance the employee’s interest in the speech against the government’s interest in promoting an efficient workplace.

In 2006, the Supreme Court further defined the contours of First Amendment protection by establishing a two part test to determine whether speech by a pubic employee may be protected. First, Courts determine whether the employee “spoke as a citizen on a matter of public concern.” This test has been interpreted to mean whether the employee was speaking pursuant to her official duties or about something related to her job responsibilities. If the first test is satisfied, then the Court must determine whether the government was justified in treating the employee differently.

In Lane, the plaintiff was hired as director of a community college program. His responsibilities included decision making related to the program’s finances. When he was hired, the program was suffering financially so Lane conducted an audit. The audit revealed that an Alabama State representative was on the payroll, but was not reporting to work. After efforts to have the representative report to work, Lane fired her, after which the FBI opened an investigation into the representative. Lane testified at a grand jury and then, pursuant to a subpoena, he testified at the trial. He testified about the representative’s work and services performed. The jury could not reach a verdict, so Lane testified for a third time at a subsequent trial.

After Lane’s testimony, the college laid off 29 employees, including Lane. But, the college rescinded all but two layoffs, one of which was Lane. Lane sued arguing that he was terminated because of his testimony, in violation of the First Amendment. The trial Court dismissed the case holding that Lane testified as part of his job duties because he learned about the information in his testimony from serving as director. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

The Supreme Court, however, disagreed and reversed. The Court noted that “[t]here is considerable value … in encouraging, rather than inhibiting, speech by public employees.” The Court then looked at the speech in question – the truthful testimony – and found that it is “clearly” speech as a citizen on a matter of public concern. The Court squarely held that, “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 testimony relates to his public employment or concerns information learned during that employment.” The Court made the determination because all citizens have a duty to testify truthfully. In other words, testifying truthfully is not an obligation one has solely because of one’s employment. The critical question is whether the speech is “ordinarily within the scope an employee’s duties.”

The Court further found that Lane’s speech was a matter of public concern. Corruption in a publicly funded program is clearly a “significant public concern.” In concluding that Lane’s speech was protected, the Court noted that the defendants could not show any government interest in regulating the speech which outweighed Lane’s right to testify truthfully.

The importance of the Lane decision cannot be understated. The Supreme Court has given reassurance to public employees that they should not be afraid to testify truthfully about matters related to the workplace. The Court noted, however, that the rule is not without potential exception, such as, for instance, when a police officer testifies as a routine part of his duties.

If you have questions about the First Amendment, public employee rights, or the Lane decision, contact the employment lawyers at Famighetti & Weinick. Check back for Part 2 of the discussion which reviews a recent case analyzing First Amendment protection for public employees’ union activity.

Citations in this article are to Lane v. Franks, 573 U.S. __ (2014).

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