The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Roberts Court Decision Makes Government Whistleblowing Harder

Feature Story by Tyler Lewis - 6/6/2006

The Roberts Supreme Court has dealt a substantial blows to civil rights with its 5-4 decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos, which ruled that a government employee is not protected by the First Amendment right of free speech as part of performing job-required duties.

The decision has incensed the civil rights community, which has called the decision a prime example of the rightward shift of the nation's highest court since the highly contentious confirmations of Chief Justice John Roberts in September and Justice Samuel Alito in February.

"This decision tells us all we need to know about the kind of court Roberts and Alito have created," said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. "This court is not concerned with the public interest at all."

The plaintiff, Richard Ceballos, a deputy district attorney in the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office, filed suit in a Los Angeles federal court in 2000, claiming that he was transferred and denied a promotion for exposing police misconduct.

The Supreme Court decision distinguishes speech made during the course of performing one's job duties from speech made in the public sphere, opining that speech made in the public sphere is protected by the First Amendment while speech made during the course of performing job duties is not protected.

Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy wrote, "[W]e hold that when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties...the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline."

Justice John Paul Stevens contradicted that interpretation in his dissenting opinion, concluding that such a distinction is "quite wrong." Justice David Souter added in a separate dissent that "open speech by a private citizen on a matter of public importance lies at the heart of expression subject to protection by the First Amendment."

The decision of the Roberts Court dealt a sharp blow to whistleblower protections and the First Amendment. The Court's decision dissuades and potentially punishes honest employees who seek to expose government corruption. "In an age of excessive government secrecy, the Supreme Court has made it easier to engage in a government cover-up by discouraging internal whistleblowing," said Steven Shapiro, ACLU National Legal Director.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer also dissented. Justice Kennedy was joined in his majority opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito.

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