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New Limits on Public-Sector Whistle-Blowers

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In a victory for employers, the U.S. Supreme Court made it harder for public employees to sue when they claim to have been punished for speaking up about wrongdoing.

The 5-4 decision said that 22 million employees of federal, state or local governments don’t have the unlimited right to criticize the governmental units for which they work. The decision essentially says that the First Amendment doesn’t protect employees who blow the whistle in their official course of duty.

At issue: Richard Ceballos, a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles, claimed he was illegally retaliated against for sending a memo to his boss questioning the honesty of a police officer. But the Supreme Court concluded that complaining about wrongdoing to one’s boss isn’t constitutionally protected speech and can be punished. The decision would have been different if Ceballos had used a federal or state whistle-blower law to bring the alleged misconduct to public light, said the court. (Garcetti v. Ceballos, No. 04-0473, Supreme Court, 2006)

Bottom line: The court practically invited government employees to go public with wrongdoing allegations, rather than take corruption claims up the chain of command. Ironically, by limiting one avenue, the court may have broadened another.  

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