In 2006, former Central Alabama Community College employee Edward R. Lane realized he was paying a state legislator who rarely, if ever, showed up for work. Colleagues warned him not to say anything, but he couldn’t let it go.
"It's sort of like being president of the bank," he told National Public Radio. “If I know one of my tellers is stealing and I allow it to go on, then I'm complicit."
He fired Suzanne Schmitz for non-performance. She was convicted, sentenced to 30 months in prison, and ordered to pay the college back more than $175,000.
Shortly thereafter, the college let go of “probationary” employees during budget cuts. All but Lane and one other were later rehired. Lane sued, claiming he was really fired as punishment for uncovering fraud and that being punished for testifying against Schmitz violated his free speech rights.
In June the Supreme Court (No. 13-483) agreed, confirming 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.
“Anyone who testifies in court bears an obligation, to the court and society at large, to tell the truth,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor. 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."
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