The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that public employees are protected from retaliation when they testify in court against their superiors regarding misconduct at the workplace. The court unanimously decided that that the First Amendment protects those who tell the truth and reveal corruption. Justice Sonya Sotomayor wrote that public employees should not have to choose between “the obligation to testify truthfully and the desire to avoid retaliation and keep their jobs.”
This decision clarified a previous ruling in Lane v. Franks, in which Lane, an Alabama community college official, testified against a state legislator for collecting money from the college but performing no work. After he gave his testimony, he was fired. He sued several college officials claiming that he was terminated for telling the truth, thereby violating the First Amendment. The lower court dismissed his claims on grounds that the First Amendment does not protect public employees for exposing internal wrongdoing. Similarly, in a 2006 case, Garcetti v. Ceballos, the court held that the First Amendment does not protect internal whistleblowers who speak about matters involving their official duties.
In last week’s decision, however, the court held that testifying in court is protected as it is not part of an employee’s ordinary job duties, and public employees who testify in a corruption probe have an “independent obligation” to tell the truth, which is different then speaking about a workplace dispute.