Lane v. Franks

Citizens do not Surrender their First Amendment Rights by Accepting Public Employment
No. 13-483, United States Supreme Court
Thursday, June 19, 2014

Edward Lane, the director of training program operated by a community college in Alabama, fired an Alabama legislator who was drawing a salary from the program for a no-show job.  After the firing Lane was subpoenaed to testify in the legislator’s criminal trial, and after that testimony Lane was fired from his position.  Lane sued the person who fired him along with the community college claiming his rights under the First Amendment were violated when he was fired in retaliation for testifying truthfully in Court.

The US Supreme Court reiterated that citizens do not surrender their First Amendment rights by accepting public employment. The Court explained that the  First Amendment  protection  of a  public  employee's speech  depends on  a  careful balance between the   interests of  the employee as  a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern and the interest of the State, as an employer,  in promoting the efficiency of  the  public  services it  performs through  its employees. Although government  employers, like  private  employers, need  a significant degree  of control  over  their  employees' words and actions;  without it, there would be little chance for the efficient  provision  of public services.  Garcetti v. Ceballos 547 U. S. 410, 418 (2006).

The Court concluded that so long as the public employee spoke as a citizen on a matter of public concern, and the relevant government entity had no adequate justification for treating the public employee differently from any other member of the public based on the government's needs as an employer, then the firing of the public employee due to the speech of the public employee could subject the governmental entity to liability under the civil rights statute, 42 USC §1983.

Practice Pointer:  if a town employee writes a letter to the editor concerning events going on at town hall, do not punish the employee for writing that letter unless you have a really good reason, such as the letter revealed the names of people receiving local assistance.