On June 19, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Lane v. Franks, concluding that the First Amendment protects a public employee who provided truthful sworn testimony, compelled by subpoena, outside the course of his ordinary job responsibilities.

Edward Lane worked for Central Alabama Community College (CACC) as the Director of Community Intensive Training for Youth (CITY), a statewide program for underprivileged youth. When Lane audited CITY’s expenses, he learned that Alabama State Representative Suzanne Schmitz was on CITY’s payroll but had not been reporting to her CITY office. Lane contacted Schmitz and told her to show up at the CITY office, but she refused. Lane then fired Schmitz.

Schmitz was later indicted on four counts of mail fraud and four counts of theft concerning a program receiving federal funds. The indictment alleged that she had submitted false statements concerning her employment with CITY and received $177,251.82 in federal funds despite doing no work for CITY. Lane testified under subpoena at Schmitz’s criminal trial, in which the jury failed to reach a verdict, and again at her retrial, in which the jury convicted Schmitz of three counts of mail fraud and four counts of theft concerning a program receiving federal funds.

Several months later, CACC President Steve Franks terminated Lane’s employment. Lane then sued Franks, alleging that his termination violated the First Amendment because it was in retaliation for his testimony against Schmitz. The District Court granted summary judgment to Franks, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, because Lane had spoken as an employee, not as a citizen, when he testified at Schmitz’s criminal trial. In yesterday’s ruling, the Supreme Court reversed.

The Supreme Court held that the First Amendment protects public employees who provide truthful subpoenaed testimony outside the course of their ordinary job responsibilities, and public employees may not be fired or suffer other adverse employment consequences for providing such testimony. This holding was based on several factors. First, the Court concluded that a public employee’s truthful testimony under oath, outside the scope of his ordinary job duties, is speech as a citizen for First Amendment purposes, even if the testimony relates to the employee’s employment or concerns information learned during that employment. The critical question, the Court noted, is whether the speech at issue – here, testifying at a criminal trial – is ordinarily within the scope of the employee’s duties, not whether it merely concerns those duties. Second, the Court concluded that the content of Lane’s testimony, which concerned corruption in a public program and the misuse of state funds, involved a matter of significant public concern.

Apart from the fact that Lane spoke as a citizen on a matter of public concern, the Court also considered whether the government had an adequate justification for treating him differently based on its needs as an employer. While the Court noted that government employers often have legitimate interests in promoting efficiency and integrity in the discharge of official duties and maintaining proper discipline in public service, Lane’s employer had not asserted any government interest that would tip the balance in its favor. As a result, the Court concluded that Lane’s speech was entitled to protection under the First Amendment.

Public employers are reminded to respect their employees’ protected speech, and to avoid retaliation. In addition, while Lane v. Franks concerned only public employees, some states, including Connecticut, extend similar protections to employees of private companies.