Public Employees: Tell the Truth, the Whole Truth

When public employees are called to testify in court cases as representatives of their departments or agencies, do they put their jobs on the line if their testimony contradicts the “company line”?

Let’s say you’re a government employee responsible for keeping your department’s finances above-board. In your latest financial audit, you discover that a state representative has been receiving a paycheck from your department without actually doing anything. You ask questions, of course, but your boss and the department’s attorney warn you that if you dig any further, you may be fired.

You’re not afraid. You want to do the right thing, so you contact the state representative in question and ask her to at least start earning her paycheck by showing up for work. She refuses. You cut off her paycheck.

It turns out this state representative has her fingers in a few other cookie jars, and the FBI is onto her. They subpoena you, and you testify in two different court appearances about how she received money in exchange for doing nothing.

Then, due to “budget cuts”, you and 29 coworkers receive termination letters. Hey, times are tough. It could happen – except that the other 29 coworkers receive a follow-up notice that they can return to work.

They’re rehired. You’re in the breadline.

This story has an unfortunate basis in reality, being conveyed in a U.S. Supreme Court decision of Lane v. Franks. In his argument, Edward Lane (the terminated employee) alleged he was fired in retaliation for testifying about Alabama State Representative Sue Schmitz’s payment irregularities in court, under oath. The termination, he argued was not only retaliatory but also a violation of his First Amendment rights to free speech.

Public Employees Protected from Retaliation for Truthful Testimony

The case of Lane v. Franks determined that public employees cannot be fired in retaliation for testifying truthfully on matters of public corruption or public concern. In this case, the termination was retaliatory and Lane’s First Amendment rights were violated, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously.

Does the First Amendment permit the government to retaliate against a public employee for sworn testimony that was compelled by subpoena and was not a part of the employee’s ordinary work duties?

Whatever Happened to Sue Schmitz?

Former Alabama State Representative Sue Schmitz – the rep with her hands in the cookie jar – was convicted in 2009 of federal mail fraud and theft charges. She did a 30-month stint in a Kentucky minimum-security prison camp and was released in 2012.

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