Supreme Court: Sorry, whistleblowers

John Dimsdale May 30, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Raise your hand if you think you’re protected by the First Amendment. Goverment employees . . . not so fast. The Supreme Court ruled today on official whistleblowers: government workers who speak out about the inner workings of government. It was a 5-4 decision. Our Washington bureau chief John Dimsdale reports the justices differed on how far freedom of speech can take you.

JOHN DIMSDALE: A bare majority of the Justices came down on the side of the Los Angeles County prosecutor’s office. The county argued one of its employees had no right to claim First Amendment protections when he questioned the accuracy of a warrant application.

The employee’s supervisors argued — and the court agreed — that free speech rights should not apply when a public employee is acting as an employee, rather than a citizen. Francisco Negron is general counsel for the National School Boards Association. It filed a brief supporting the L.A. County prosecutor’s office. He calls today’s ruling a good one:

FRANCISCO NEGRON: It says to the public employer that they’re no different than your regular private employers out there. . . . The Supreme Court appears to be recognizing the fact that a public employee is first an employee, and then happens to work for a public entity — really by happenstance.

Negron says private-sector employees are not allowed to invoke the First Amendment for internal company memos and conversations, and neither should government employees.

But Max Stier, the president of the Partnership for Public Service says government employees need a constitutional shield.

MAX STIER: There is a strong public interest in making sure that employees have the capacity to speak out about things they think are not happening in the right way. It is part and parcel of our tradition in government for it to occur . . . and that voice is a key voice for the American people.

Stier says lawmakers can reverse the court by passing free-speech protections for government whistleblowers.

In Washington, I’m John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

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