Supremes Rule That Trial Speech is Protected Speech – Part 1

By John Alan Doran

This morning the U.S. Supreme Court issued an important decision affecting public employers and employee First Amendment rights to free speech.  Lane v. Franks et al., No. 13-483 (U.S. June 19, 2014) Central Alabama Community College (CACC) hired Edward Lane to run a city youth program.  Lane audited the youth program, learned that a State congresswoman was on the payroll of the program but never worked for it, reported his findings to his superiors, and fired the congresswoman after being warned by his superiors that the firing could have negative consequences for Lane and CACC.   Lane subsequently received a subpoena to testify at the congresswoman’s criminal trial, and testified truthfully. She was convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison.  CACC then fired Lane, pointing to the financial distress of the youth program.

Lane sued CACC and its President, claiming that he was fired for his testimony at the criminal trial. Importantly, Lane sued the President in both his individual and official capacities, and sought damages and equitable relief.  Both the trial court and the Eleventh Circuit Court of appeals threw out the case against the President.  Both courts concluded that Lane’s trial testimony was part of his employment duties and was, therefore, not protected under the First Amendment.  Both courts also held the President was entitled to qualified immunity, a defense to the claims against him in his personal capacity.

The Supreme Court reversed, finding that Lane’s testimony was protected by the First Amendment because it was public speech that was not part of Lane’s ordinary job duties.  The Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of Lane’s claim against the President in his personal capacity only, because the President was entitled to a qualified immunity in light of the unsettled nature of this area of First Amendment law.  In doing so, the Supreme Court significantly expanded the scope of First Amendment-protected speech for public sector employees, reining back what many believed was a broad pro-employer standard previously established by the Court in Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006).

The Court’s reasoning and the limitations of the ruling can be read in Part II.