The court, ruling for an Alabama community college employee who blew the whistle on a state legislator who gave herself a no-show job, removed the distinction between public employees' free speech rights as citizens and as government workers.
"It would be antithetical to our jurisprudence to conclude that the very kind of speech necessary to prosecute corruption by public officials -- speech by public employees regarding information learned through their employment -- may never form the basis for a First Amendment retaliation claim," Justice Sonia Sotomayor said, writing for the court.
The court ruled for Edward Lane, who was laid off from his job as director of a youth training program at Central Alabama Community College after he fired the state legislator, Suzanne Schmitz, and testified against her. Steve Franks, then the president of the college, dismissed Lane and 30 other employees, citing budget problems, and then rehired 29 of them.
A district court and appeals court ruled against Lane, finding that he testified against Schmitz, who was convicted of corruption, as a government employee, not a citizen. Lane had sued Franks, saying his dismissal was retaliation and that his First Amendment right to free speech had been violated.
The legal victory may not help Lane get his job back. The court found that Franks, who was also a public employee, is protected from lawsuits as an individual except when there has been a clear violation of the law or a constitutional right.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by two other conservatives, Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia, said the decision does not deal with police officers and other employees where giving court testimony is part of the job description.