A community college violated a program director's First Amendment rights, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, when it fired him after he testified during an investigation of corruption in the program. Lane v. Franks, et al, 573 U.S. ___, No. 13-483, slip op. (Jun. 19, 2014). The court held that the plaintiff did not give up his rights under the First Amendment when he accepted public employment. It remanded the plaintiff's case against the community college to the trial court for further proceedings, but it affirmed the lower courts' findings that the college president, named as an individual defendant, had limited immunity for acts performed in an official capacity. Despite this, the case is an important victory for whistleblowers in the government.
The plaintiff, Edward Lane, was hired in 2006 as the Director of Community Intensive Training for Youth (CITY), a statewide program run through Central Alabama Community College (CACC) to assist underprivileged youth. CITY was facing serious financial problems at the time, according to the court's opinion, which prompted Lane to audit the program's expenses. He discovered about $177,000 paid to Democrat state representative Sue Schmitz between February 2003 and October 2006, with little record of any actual work done by her. When Schmitz reportedly refused Lane's demand to show up for work at CITY's office in Huntsville, Lane fired her. This allegedly drew threats of retaliation from Schmidt and the attention of the FBI.
In November 2006, Lane testified to a federal grand jury, which later indicted Schmidt on multiple counts of mail fraud and theft. Lane testified under subpoena at her trial in August 2008. When the jury failed to reach a verdict, prosecutors tried Schmidt again, and Lane testified again. Schmidt was convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison. In January 2009, CACC President Steve Franks terminated 29 probationary CITY employees, including Lane, citing budget shortfalls. He then rescinded all but two of those terminations. Lane was one of the two who were not reinstated.