SCOTUS Holds That Public Employee’s Sworn Testimony Was Protected by First Amendment

In Lane v. Franks, decided June 19, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court (per Justice Sotomayor) squarely held that the First Amendment protects a public employee who provides truthful sworn testimony, compelled by subpoena, outside the scope of his ordinary job responsibilities. 

In upholding petitioner Lane’s retaliatory termination claim, the Court applied its precedents, including Pickering v. Bd. of Ed. (1968) and Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006). Specifically, Garcetti describes a two-step inquiry into whether a public employee’s speech is entitled to protection:

The first [step] requires determining whether the employee spoke as a citizen on a matter of public concern. If the answer is no, the employee has no First Amendment cause of action based on his or her employer’s reaction to the speech. If the answer is yes, then the possibility of a First Amendment claim arises. The question becomes whether the relevant government entity had an adequate justification for treating the employee differently from any other member of the general public.

Initially, the Court held that Lane’s speech was “clearly” speech as a citizen on a matter of public concern. As to the “citizen” prong, “[s]worn testimony in judicial proceedings is a quintessential example of speech as a citizen” since “[a]nyone who testifies in court bears an obligation, to the court and society at large, to tell the truth.” Lane’s speech was also on a matter of public concern, as it related to corruption in a public program and misuse of state funds.

Having concluded that Lane’s testimony was speech as a citizen as a matter of public concern, the Court held that there was no government interest justifying treating Lane differently than other members of the public in light of the government’s needs as an employer. It noted the absence of evidence that Lane’s testimony “was false or erroneous or that Lane unnecessarily disclosed any sensitive, confidential, or privileged information while testifying.”

Finally, the Court held that the respondent, Franks, was entitled to qualified immunity, and upheld the lower court’s dismissal of Lane’s claims against Franks in his individual capacity.

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