SUPREME COURT WEIGHS IN ON PUBLIC EMPLOYEES' FIRST AMENDMENT RIGHTS
August 13, 2014
Plaintiff Edward Lane worked at a community college in Alabama serving as the director of a program for underprivileged youth. During a financial audit, he discovered that another employee was not actually performing the work for which she was being paid. He fired the female employee and was then called to testify before a federal grand jury, and later at trial, to explain why he did so. A jury convicted the female employee for mail fraud and theft, and the district court sentenced her to 30 months in prison and ordered her to pay $177,000 in restitution.
Just a few months later, Lane's employer began experiencing significant budget shortfalls. Lane met with the community college's president, Steve Franks, and recommended that the president consider layoffs. Franks determined that layoffs would be made and notified 29 employees, including Lane, that they would be terminated for financial reasons. However, Franks rescinded all but 2 of the terminations – those of Lane and one other employee.
Lane sued, alleging that Franks violated the First Amendment by firing him in retaliation for his testimony against the female employee. The district court granted summary judgment to Franks because Lane's speech could be considered to be part of his official job duties and not made as a citizen on a matter of public concern. On appeal, the 11th Circuit affirmed. The appellate court similarly concluded that Lane's speech was made as an employee and not as a citizen on a matter of public concern. The 11th Circuit reasoned that Lane was acting as an employee when he investigated the employee's misuse of funds and terminated her employment. Lane appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment "protects a public employee who provide[s] truthful sworn testimony, compelled by subpoena, outside the course of his ordinary job responsibilities." The Court found that Lane had testified "as a citizen on a matter of public concern" because he had "an obligation, to the court and society at large, to tell the truth" when subpoenaed to testify at trial. The mere fact that Lane's speech concerned information acquired by virtue of his public employment was not enough to transform that speech into employee speech. The Court also found that the speech related to a public concern – corruption in a public program and the misuse of public funds. However, the Court also found that Franks was entitled to qualified immunity from the suit and thus affirmed the dismissal of the claims brought against Franks in his individual capacity.
The Court's decision in Lane v. Franks is not particularly surprising. For decades, the courts have held that citizens do not surrender their First Amendment rights by accepting public employment. Notably, the Court did not overrule its 2006 ruling in Garcetti v. Ceballos, which held that when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes. However, the Court clarified that there are limits to the Garcetti holding and stressed that it is important for employers to consider whether the speech at issue is itself ordinarily within the scope of the employee's duties, or whether it merely concerns those duties.