Ridenhour Prizes Today
At the annual Ridenhour Prizes being held later this afternoon, NSA whistleblower/GAP client Edward Snowden and journalist Laura Poitras will be officially recognized as recipients of the 2014 Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling. The award is widely considered the highest honor a whistleblower can receive, and is presented to citizens or journalists for “bringing a specific issue of social importance to the public’s attention.” Snowden was honored for “exposing the scope of the NSA’s warrantless surveillance state,” while Poitras won for her “reporting and vital role in the NSA disclosures.”
Previous GAP clients that have won this prize include Countrywide/Bank of America whistleblower Eileen Foster (2012), NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake (2011), and White House/climate science whistleblower Rick Piltz (2006).
On Monday, the Supreme Court heard a case that may result in a decision that significantly strengthens the whistleblower rights of government employees. According to the article, the Justices “sounded ready to rule that a public employee who testifies about corruption in his government department cannot be fired for revealing the truth.”
The case centers on the firing of Charles Lane, a community college employee who exposed that an Alabaman state legislator was collecting a paycheck from the college while performing no work. Lane revealed his information when subpoenaed by federal investigators. According to a 2006 Supreme Court ruling, public employees enjoy First Amendment free speech protections when they speak as citizens, but not when they expose wrongdoing “pursuant to their official job duties.”
GAP filed an amicus curiae brief urging the court to illegalize the firing of public employee whistleblowers for revealing evidence of wrongdoing.
Key Quote (Los Angeles Times): In Lane’s case, federal prosecutors had ordered him to testify in the corruption trial of the state legislator.
“Well, what is he supposed to do?” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked an attorney defending the college president. “He gets a subpoena” from the prosecutor and has to tell the truth in court.
“Mr. Chief Justice, we would never suggest anybody not comply with a subpoena and testify truthfully,” said Mark Waggoner, a lawyer from Birmingham.
“But you are suggesting he can be fired if he does it,” Roberts replied.
Sotomayor said the court should retreat from what it said in the Garcetti decision. “If someone is called to testify truthfully about a matter of public concern, should they be able to be fired under the 1st Amendment?”
It was clear she and most others thought the answer was no.
Key Quote (Washington Post): A brief filed by the Government Accountability Project, an organization that supports whistleblowers, cited three cases involving federal employees to demonstrate the importance of protecting those who testify. The employees all appeared before Congress and faced threats or retaliation because of it. Coleen Rowley spoke about FBI shortcomings related to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Peter Buxtun, an epidemiologist with the U.S. Public Health Service, testified about the Tuskegee syphilis experiments on black men. Ernest Fitzgerald, a Defense Department staffer, provided information about huge cost overruns on the C-5A cargo plane.
In testimony before a Senate subcommittee yesterday, the head of the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) relayed that “strict time frames dictated by an older whistleblower law lead the agency to dismiss more than 200 cases a year, some of which have merit.” This is due to some statutes specifying that a whistleblower only has 30 days to file a complaint regarding reprisal. GAP Legal Director Tom Devine participated in the hearing, testifying on the current state of OSHA whistleblower protection laws and the need to strengthen them. The full hearing was live streamed.
Key Quote (Michaels): “There are [more than] 200 cases a year which we dismiss simply because they’re untimely. Some of them involve what we think are very meritorious cases of workers who file 32, 34, 35 days after the event. That simply isn’t fair,” he said.
The state of Lagos in Nigeria is considering instituting whistleblower protections to “protect and support individuals who have sensitive information to share with the general public.”
Dylan Blaylock is Communications Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation’s leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.