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Supreme Court ponders employees' First Amendment rights

The United States Supreme Court recently heard the case of Lane v. Franks, 13-483, and is currently pondering whether the plaintiff as an employee is protected by the First Amendment, and whether he and the millions of public employees across the nation have to fear retaliation on the job after offering testimony regarding government misconduct.

The plaintiff in this case was fired for giving testimony about corruption that he witnessed at a community college program, where he was employed in Alabama.

In its previous rulings, the nation's highest court has ruled that public workers are only protected under the First Amendment when they are speaking as individual citizens and not while acting in their official employment positions.

The justices appeared to haggle over whether the protection should automatically be extended to cover all public employees, including law enforcement and investigators whose court testimony is required in prosecuting criminal cases. The majority of justices seemed to side with the plaintiff and his position that testimony offered that reveals misconduct on the part of officials deserves constitutional protection even when the testimony is related to his employment.

The deputy solicitor for the government argued that the plaintiff's testimony bore First Amendment protection, but that the protection should not be extended to employees whose job descriptions require their testimony in court. Justice Sotomayor pondered the kind of message being sent by the government when some workers risk termination for telling the truth in court even when that information is detrimental to their employers.

This case involving employee rights has drawn interest from whistleblower groups, the American Civil Liberties Union and law enforcement organizations. All have concerns that whistleblowers will shy away from testifying about alleged fraud or misconduct in the workplace without protection from job retaliation.

If you have information regarding employer misconduct, it can be very helpful to consult with a Missouri employment law attorney before going public with your story so that you can be advised of your rights in the matter.

Source: Quincy Herald-Whig, "Court considers whistleblower free speech rights" Sam Hananel, Apr. 28, 2014

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