Public employees have First Amendment free speech rights, including protection from reprisal for reporting alleged wrongdoing to superiors. They lose that protection only if reporting wrongdoing is part of their jobs.
Recent case: Nelson Anthoine was fired from his job with the public agency responsible for administering the Workforce Investment Act in five California counties.
He was a low-ranking employee who jumped the chain of command to charge that his supervisor allegedly wasn’t reporting the correct data to the governing board. It wasn’t Anthoine’s job to report on the data.
Within weeks, he was terminated for insubordination and.
He sued, alleging retaliation for exercising his right to speak out on matters of public importance—in this case, failure of his boss to comply with all the requirements of the Workforce Investment Act, including correct data reporting.
The district court dismissed his case, but the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated it. The appeals court concluded that if Anthoine’s version of events was true, he had spoken out on a matter of public importance that was outside his job responsibilities and should have been protected. A jury trial is next. (Anthoine v. North Central Counties Consortium, No. 08-16803, 9th Cir., 2010)
Final note: Public employees who are simply doing their jobs when they speak out are not protected—for example, a state attorney who reports problems with the way police officials handle search warrants.
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