Lane v. Franks: New Public Employee Free Speech Decision
The Supreme Court, on June 19, 2014, handed down an important public employee free speech decision in Lane v. Franks (PDF), No. 13-483. The Court unanimously held, in an opinion by Justice Sotomayor, that a public employee who testifies truthfully at trial, pursuant to a subpoena, is protected by the First Amendment from employer discipline, at least where the testimony is not pursuant to his/her duties as an employee. However, the Court also ruled that the employee’s superior, who fired him, was not liable in damages because of qualified immunity.
Justice Thomas concurred, joined by Justices Scalia and Alito, emphasizing that the Court’s ruling applied only to testimony that was not pursuant to a public employee’s official duties.
Previous Posts on Lane v. Franks
I previously blogged about this case when certiorari was granted, see post of January 20, 2014; when (full disclosure here) I co-authored a Law Professors’ Amicus Brief in Support of Petitioner, see post of March 13, 2014; and when I did a short video on the case, see post of April 25, 2014. Those posts set out the background and facts.
The Opinion: The First Amendment Merits
Justice Sotomayor initially set out the basics of public employee free speech jurisprudence stemming from Pickering v. Bd. of Education and Garcetti v. Ceballos. She observed that where a public employee is disciplined for his or her speech and asserts First Amendment protection, the first question was whether the speech engaged in–here, Lane’s testimony at two federal criminal trials– was pursuant to the employee’s job duties. In this case, it was clear– even undisputed–that Lane’s testimony, pursuant to subpoena, at trial, was not part of his ordinary job duties. Moreover, it was every citizen’s duty under subpoena to testify truthfully at trial. The Court emphatically rejected the misguided position of the Eleventh Circuit in this case that Lane’s speech was not that of a citizen but that of an employee because he testified about information arising out of his employment.
The second question–whether the speech dealt with a matter of public concern–was also easy to answer: Lane’s testimony dealt with the malfeasance of a state legislator in connection with the misuse of public funds. According to the Court, this was a classic case of whistle-blowing about public corruption. This was surely a matter of public concern. Consequently, the First Amendment was implicated here.
Finally, as to the Pickering balancing test, the Court observed that the various defendants never seriously argued that the balance should tip in favor of allowing Lane to be disciplined. There was no countervailing governmental interest whatever that would justify his firing.
Consequently, the First Amendment protected Lane from discipline for his truthful testimony.
The Opinion: Qualified Immunity
The defendant Franks was sued for damages under 42 U.S.C. section 1983, which provides a damages remedy against state and local government officials who violate a person’s constitutional rights. See generally Nahmod, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. 2013). However, qualified immunity is a defense to damages liability where the defendant can show that the relevant constitutional law was not clearly settled at the time of the unconstitutional conduct, thereby not providing fair notice to the defendant that his or her conduct was unconstitutional.
Here, the Court agreed with defendant Franks’ argument that the relevant First Amendment law was not clearly settled in the Eleventh Circuit in January 2009 because, at best, there were Eleventh Circuit opinions going in different directions as to the applicability of the First Amendment to a public employee’s subpoenaed testimony at trial. And Garcetti itself did not address that question.
1. Lane is a major decision because of its unanimous ruling on the First Amendment issue. It is also significant because it’s the first Supreme Court decision to consider the implications of Garcetti, handed down in 2006. The Court soundly treated Lane’s testimony as citizen speech, even though it arose out of Lane’s employment.
2. The opinion expressly did not address the question whether the First Amendment should protect the truthful testimony of a public employee where that testimony is part of the employee’s job responsibilities. Nevertheless, I would argue that Garcetti should not preclude First Amendment application even here because the obligation of a public employee to testify truthfully arises from his or her status as a citizen, and this should trump the fact that the subpoenaed testimony is part of the employee’s job duties. This is where I would part company with the concurring opinion of Justice Thomas, joined by Justices Scalia and Alito.
On the other hand, if the employee testifies falsely or misleadingly in such a situation, employer discipline should not be barred by the First Amendment.
3. Finally, the defendant in this case, Franks, was protected by qualified immunity because the relevant First Amendment law was not clearly settled at the time he terminated Lane, namely, January 2009. The Court therefore rejected Lane’s contention that, regardless of the Eleventh Circuit’s confusion on the matter, Garcetti itself established clearly settled law. However, since the Court unanimously read its opinion in Garcetti in favor of Lane’s position, I wonder why that did not, in 2006, establish clearly settled First Amendment law for the nation regardless of the Eleventh Circuit’s own precedents. One possible answer is that the Court still did not consider this fair notice to Franks because the Garcetti itself did not address the precise issue in Lane. Still that seems like an overly narrow application of the clearly settled law requirement.
Nevertheless, Lane declares that as of June 19, 2014, the relevant First Amendment law regarding the truthful testimony of a public employee on a matter of public concern, which is not part of his or her job duties, is indeed protected from governmental discipline by the First Amendment. All public employers are now on notice of this clearly established law in the future.
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