Supreme Court Says Court Testimony is Free Speech

Public Sector EmployersIn 2006, Edward Lane discharged Alabama State Representative Suzanne Schmitz from the state program he directed. He later testified against her in front of a grand jury and in two separate jury trials, about her behavior at work. Eventually, Schmitz was convicted of mail fraud and theftSteve Franks, Lane’s boss, discharged Lane. Lane believed Franks fired him for testifying against Schmitz and sued. Franks argued Lane’s speech was part of his job duties and as such not protected by the First Amendment. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. Lane appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, who handed down its decision in June of this year. Lane v. Franks (U.S. 2014).

The Supreme Court determined the question they were to answer was a discrete one: whether the First Amendment protects an employee who does not ordinarily testify as a part of his job for testifying about matters related to work. In a unanimous decision, the Court held when a public employee testifies about a work related matter—
unless testifying is part of his or her job duties—he or she is testifying as a citizen and entitled to protection.

The Court explained, “Sworn testimony in judicial proceedings is a quintessential example of speech as a citizen for a simple reason: Anyone who testifies in court bears an obligation, to the court and society at large, to tell the truth.” The justices pointed out that when there is a public corruption scandal, it is important for public employees, who have a great deal of information and insight as a result of their jobs, to be able to testify truthfully without being at risk for doing so.

The Court also held the speech related directly to a matter of both political and social concern to the community at large. Under the Pickering test, the public concern must be balanced against efficient government operations. However, the justices found absolutely no government interest to weigh against the matter of a public concern when using the balancing test.

This case makes quite clear that an employee who does not ordinarily testify as a part of his or her job is protected by the First Amendment and cannot be discharged for testifying about a work-related matter. The court has left open the issue of what happens when an employee testifies as part of his or her job.