Monday, June 12, 2006

Free Speech for All, Unless You Work for the Government

I admit it’s been a couple of weeks since this news story broke, but this kind of disturbs me. Richard Ceballos, a supervising district attorney in Los Angeles, had sent a memo out raising some questions about whether or not a deputy sheriff had lied to obtain a search warrant in a case that has come before the Los Angeles court. Later on, he testified as much at a trial, bringing into question the validity of the warrant.

He got demoted for blowing the whistle. In this case I think it was less “whistle blowing” than “if we’re going to prosecute this guy, we better get our ducks in a row.” He files a federal lawsuit saying that he was demoted in retaliation for his memo.

Eventually the case went to the Supreme Court. It ended in a 5-4 split decision that basically said that Government employees don’t get free-speech protection when it comes to exposing misconduct at work.

Here’s what Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote about it, when speaking for the court: "When an employee speaks as a citizen addressing a matter of public concern, the First Amendment requires a delicate balancing of the competing interests surrounding the speech and its consequences . . . When, however, the employee is simply performing his or her job duties, there is no warrant for a similar degree of scrutiny."

Huh? So, if I try and let someone in the government agency I work for that something is amiss, I can get canned for doing my job, just because what I had to say was unpopular? This seems to support the idea that it’s okay to cover-ups illegal or dangerous activity, and we’ll fire you if you don’t go along. It certainly does nothing for the safety and welfare of the people that agency serves.

Here’s a quote from the dissenting side:

In a dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens called the majority opinion "misguided."

"The proper answer to the question 'whether the First Amendment protects a government employee from discipline based on speech made pursuant to the employee's official duties' is 'Sometimes,' not 'Never,' he writes.
"Of course a supervisor may take corrective action when such speech is inflammatory or misguided," Justice Stevens writes. "But what if it is just unwelcome speech because it reveals facts that the supervisor would rather not have anyone else discover?"
In a separate dissenting opinion, Justice Souter wrote:

"But I would hold that private and public interests in addressing official wrongdoing and threats to health and safety can outweigh the government's stake in the efficient implementation of policy."

Justices Stevens and Souter seemed to hit the problem on the head, if you ask me.

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