The Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision today concluding that a community college employee was indeed entitled to First Amendment protections when testifying against a state legislator who was being tried for fraud and misuse of federal funds.
Edward Lane was running a program for at-risk youth at Central Alabama Community College when he discovered and then fired a state legislator on his payroll wasn’t actually showing up for work. The representative was later convicted for the corruption charges.
After providing testimony in the legislator’s criminal prosecution, Lane was fired.
The case went to the Supreme Court on the grounds that all public employees should be protected in their testimony — whether connected to job duties or not. Justice Sonia Sotomayor authored the opinion.
“Today’s decision will protect public employees from job retaliation when they testify in court about public corruption,” said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, which represented Lane on the cases’ appeal to the Eleventh Court, in a statement.
The Supreme Court did, however, conclude that Lane’s First Amendment protection was not “beyond debate” and that the college’s president possessed immunity for his firing.
“We are disappointed the Court did not go further to establish a clear rule that sworn testimony by public employees should never be the basis for any retaliatory action by a public employer,” Roekel continued. “As teachers and other education professionals, our members often must speak up on behalf of their students to ensure that their needs are being met, and that their students are being provided with all the resources to which they are entitled and need to succeed. When they do so, their speech and actions should be protected.”
In Hawaii, the potential threat of retaliation against public educators for speaking out has raised eyebrows. A recent informal survey suggests that fear of retribution is one of the biggest concerns among principals, with nearly two-thirds of them fearing the Department of Education will punish them if they speak out.
DOE officials deny the problem, and Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi has said that finding is one of the most disturbing conclusions of the survey.