first amendment government employeesBack in the day, a reporter could call someone at an institution or government agency, do an interview and write a story. Those days are long gone. All inquiries now get sent straight to the press office. Frequently, the response is an anemic written statement.

Understandably, organizations want to control their message. But what rights do government employees have to speak publicly – to the press or otherwise? And how do whistleblowers protection rules dictate what an employee can disclose to the public?

Two pieces out this week talk about free speech rights for government employees. The Poynter Institute, a journalism training center, highlights a new report from the University of Florida on the first amendment and public employees right to speak to the media.

Note that whistleblower protection rules sometimes dictate whether it is wise for a whistleblower to go to the press.
Continue Reading Can government employees be fired for something they say? Not legally

Ruling Protecting Testimony Before Federal Grand Juries Will
Have Widespread Impact On Fraud Investigations

Washington, D.C. June 19, 2014. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark whistleblower decision in the case of Lane v. Franks.  The Court held that truthful testimony before a federal Grand Jury is “clearly” protected speech under the First

Stephen M. Kohn, Executive Director of the National Whistleblowers Center (NWC), published an op-ed article in today’s New York Times.The article tells the story of Captain John Grannis, and nine other sailors of the Continental Navy. The full story is contained in The Whistleblower’s Handbook. The actual documents from the Continental Congress are

Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion holding that a social worker is protected from retaliation for his courtroom testimony about  a former client. The case is Clairmont v. Sound Mental Health and Wilson, No. 09-35856 (9th Cir. 2011).

From 2005 to 2007, Sound Mental Health (SMH) of Seattle, Washington, employed Richard Clairmont as a domestic violence  program manager. He supervised a treatment program for offenders and members of the public.  SMH had a contract with the Seattle Municipal Court. In exchange for providing the services and making regular reports to the Court, the Court gave SMH office space and equipment. Joni Wilson was the Manager of Probation Services for the Court.

In 2007, a criminal defense attorney subpoenaed Clairmont to provide expert testimony in her client’s case.  The client spoke Spanish, and had been terminated by a competing treatment program. Clairmont agreed to provide the testimony about the possibility that the client was treated differently because of the language issue. The Court’s probation office was seeking a court determination that the client had violated the terms of probation such that the court should revoke probation and impose a jail sentence. When Wilson learned about Clairmont’s testimony, Wilson called Clairmont’s supervisor at SMH. Two weeks later, SMH fired Clairmont because of “critical feedback from the City of Seattle Domestic Violence Probation Officers Unit about your performance.” The letter noted that “The program is in jeopardy. They have proposed a stop-referral beginning immediately. This leaves SMH with no option but to terminate your employment effective today.

Continue Reading Ninth Circuit protects social worker’s court testimony

On Saturday, January 8, 2011, Stephen M. Kohn, National Whistleblowers Center Executive Director, appeared on CBS Evening News. The news segment covered the United States Department of Justice subpoena of private information on select WikiLeaks supporters. The government may have the right to this type of information, but it is vital to weigh First Amendment

Today, Stephen Kohn, Executive Director of the National Whistleblowers Center, issued the following statement expressing his concern about the rise in retaliatory investigations in the wake of the WikiLeaks scandal:

The WikiLeaks scandal is being used to justify a witch hunt against federal employees suspected of being whistleblowers. Currently, the NWC has obtained information documenting abusive investigatory tactics being used against federal employees, including monitoring the private emails and seizing computer hard-drives from employees who disclosed non-classified information to Congress.  The U.S. Constitution protects government workers who report waste, fraud and abuse to the American people.  However, in the first two years of the Obama presidency, more Americans have been indicted for alleged media leaks then under any other president in U.S. history, including Richard Nixon.

Continue Reading WikiLeaks Scandal Demonstrates Need for Whistleblower Protection

The Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals issued a decision this week that local government officials can be held liable for accusations they make against  citizens when it is “reasonably foreseeable” that their statements will cause the citizen to be fired from their job. Martha Paige worked as an accountant for Bunnell Hill Development Company in Warren County, Ohio. She and her husband owned a large farm in that county. When Paige learned about a proposed road project that would interfere with their farming, she organized the Residents’ Association of West Central Warren County. On August 6, 2007, Paige attended a public meeting of the Warren County Port Authority. Kimberly Coyner is executive director of the Port Authority. Before the meeting started, Coyner asked Paige about where she worked, and Paige disclosed that she worked for Bunnell Hill. During the meeting, Paige identified herself as president of the Residents’ Association, and expressed concerns about an interstate project. Paige alleges that on August 13, 2007, Coyner called Bunnell Hill and told a manager that Paige identified herself as speaking for Bunnell Hill. On August 16, 2007, Bunnell Hill fired paige for using the company name to oppose the interstate project, and disclosed Coyner’s call as a basis for the termination.

Continue Reading Sixth Circuit says local officials are liable for statements that cause discharge

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Even federal agencies use independent contractors and skirt the protections provided to "employees." This month, a federal judge in Washington, DC, held that a former translator can sue the Voice of America officials who terminated her contract after she made an anti-war music video. Using the authority of Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle has ordered that Melodi Navab-Safavi can proceed with her lawsuit against the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and its officials.  Judge Huvelle noted that Navab-Safavi made the video on her own time, without using any government resources.“[T]he law is settled that as a general matter the First Amendment prohibits government officials from subjecting an individual to retaliatory actions . . . for speaking out.”

Continue Reading Translator can sue under Bivens for retaliatory termination