The U.S. Supreme Court last week stepped back into the area of First Amendment free-speech rights of government workers.
In Lane v. Franks, the justices are considering whether the head of a community college’s program for at-risk youths had any First Amendment protection for testimony he gave about a state lawmaker who held a no-show job with the program.
The employee, Edward R. Lane, was fired by Steve Franks, the president of the community college, after he testified at a criminal trial against the legislator. That occurred just before the at-risk program was due to request more funding from the state legislature.
Two lower federal courts ruled against Mr. Lane, holding that his testimony was speech as an employee, not as a citizen speaking on a matter of public concern, which would draw First Amendment protection under the Supreme Court’s precedents.
The National Education Association and other public-employee unions filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Mr. Lane’s side, saying the case could affect the freedom of teachers and other education professionals to speak openly about controversial issues.
His lawyer, Tejinder Singh, argued that although Mr. Lane testified about things he learned while on his job, such testimony itself was not part of his job responsibilities. Thus, it would not fall under one of the court’s recent precedents, Garcetti v. Ceballos, which held that public employees do not speak as citizens when they speak pursuant to their job duties.
Mark T. Waggoner, a lawyer representing Mr. Franks, said that Mr. Lane’s testimony “was inseparable from his job duties,” and thus not protected by the First Amendment.
By the end, it appeared that the justices were inclined to side with Mr. Lane on the merits, but with Mr. Franks on the question of qualified immunity.
A version of this article appeared in the May 07, 2014 edition of Education Week as Justices Mull Public-Employee Testimony