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Case involves man working at Alabama college who says he was fired for exposing corruption

Do First Amendment rights extend to state workers who testify truthfully but are later punished?

Court has previously said such workers cannot sue over an adverse job action in certain cases

(CNN) —  

An Alabama man who says he was fired for exposing public corruption received broad support from the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday in a free-speech dispute testing workplace protections for government employees.

In hour-long oral arguments, the justices dug into a case of whether such First Amendment rights extend to state workers who testify truthfully at trial, but are later punished by their employer.

“Government employees are often in the best position to know what ails the agencies for which they work,” said Justice Elena Kagan. “In other words, expecting that people will know things because they work in a place and that they can take what they know as a result of working” in the public sphere, and say so when subpoenaed.”

A ruling in favor of the man at the center of the legal fight, Edward Lane, could make it easier for prosecutors to pursue official public corruption allegations where the cooperation of government workers is often a key factor.

In 2006, Lane was directing a state-funded training program to help at-risk youth, coordinated through Central Alabama Community College.

An audit he performed found someone on the payroll was not showing up for work and had done virtually nothing for the program. But this was no ordinary employee: Sue Schmitz was also an Alabama state legislator.

Lane says he tried to work with Schmitz to perform her job duties. But he alleged she threatened him, and said he was cautioned by colleagues not to confront someone with her political influence.

Nevertheless, Lane fired her.

The FBI stepped in and began a separate criminal investigation, looking at how Schmitz, 69, was able to secure the community relations job with the program. She was paid $177,251 from February 2003 to October 2006.

Federal prosecutors charged the retired teacher with fraud. She was convicted, received a 30-month prison term, and was forced to resign from office.

Lane was later terminated from his government job, prompting him to sue the college president.

At arguments, Lane’s lawyer, Tejinder Singh, told the justices that his client “testified about events” that he learned about at work. “The testimony itself was not a part of his job responsibilities.” It amounted to someone speaking as “a citizen on a matter of public concern.”

But several justices questioned whether the law was clear at the time of the firing to hold the college president liable for damages. And some justices wondered whether a public official should enjoy broad job security when testifying in court.

“So what happens in a situation where a police officer gets on the stand and in testifying honestly admits to corruption, but does it in a slovenly way, comes to court dressed in a clown suit?” said Justice Sonia Sotomayor. “Could the employer fire him then?”

Yet it was the attorneys for the college presidents who received the toughest questioning. They said government workers do not deserve the “full free speech rights” enjoyed by others.

“That seems counterintuitive to me. Why do we put people at risk for telling the truth?” asked Sotomayor again. “To tell the truth about something? And I’m assuming if they lied, they could be fired.”

Chief Justice John Roberts said Lane had no choice but to testify as ordered.

“What’s he supposed to do? He says, ‘gosh, if I answer, I’m going to lose my job, or could and if I don’t, or answer falsely’” he could in turn be prosecuted by the government, said Roberts. “But you are suggesting he can be fired if he does it.”

The Supreme Court has previously said such workers cannot sue over an adverse job action such as a firing or disciplinary action, when speaking on facts learned “pursuant to their official duties.”

They can only make such claims when they speak as a private citizen.

But oral arguments revealed the court was likely to carve exceptions for employees compelled to testify under oath about matters of public concern.

The case is Lane v. Franks (13-483). A ruling is expected by early summer.