In 2006, former Central Alabama Community College employee Edward R. Lane realized that his program was paying a state legislator who rarely, if ever, showed up for work. Ultimately, the college paid Suzanne Schmitz $177,000.
Colleagues warned him not to say or do anything, but he couldn’t let it go.
"It was against the law," he explained to National Public Radio (NPR). "It's sort of like being president of the bank: If I know one of my tellers is stealing from the bank and I allow it to go on, then I'm complicit."
Lane fired Schmitz for non-performance and explained why during an FBI investigation. Schmitz was convicted, sentenced to 30 months in prison, and ordered to pay the college back.
Shortly thereafter, the college let go of “probationary” employees during budget cuts. All but Lane and one other were later re-hired. Lane sued the college, claiming he was really fired as punishment for uncovering fraud there.
In agreeing, the Supreme Court confirmed the First Amendment rights of every city, county, special district, township, and state employee.
Until now, government employees had virtually no protection when blowing the whistle on wrongdoing they uncover on the job. Now, however, courts will consider them private citizens who have information that concerns the public welfare. Violating that right makes employers liable for back pay and money damages.
“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,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor. “That is so even when the testimony relates to his public employment or concerns information learned during that employment.”
She noted that society benefits from "encouraging, rather than inhibiting, speech by public employees" because they’re "in the best position to know what ails the agencies for which they work."
"It's a win for public employees everywhere,” Lane told NPR. “It's a win for everyone that has witnessed wrongdoing in the workplace, but was afraid to speak up because they were afraid to lose their job."
Have you ever been in a position where you wanted to speak out about something but were afraid of what would happen? If so, e-mail me at [email protected].
Click here to read NPR’s coverage.
Click here to read the Supreme Court’s syllabus in Lane v. Franks et al (No. 13-483).