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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Leaker Whistleblower

Today, the Supreme Court in a 7-2 decision by Chief Justice Roberts affirmed a Federal Circuit decision that government whistleblowers are protected under the Federal Whistleblowe Act unless their disclosures are explicitly prohibited by another statute. Robert MacLean, an air marshal who flew undercover, leaked to MSNBC that the Transportation Security Administration decided to reduce overnight flights for air marshals. His report congressional criticism and led to TSA reversing itself on its budgetary cuts. The disclosure also led to the firing of MacLean disclosing "sensitive security information," which violated TSA rules. 

This is an important ruling for public accountability and disclosure. In my collaborative studies on whistleblowing, Yuval Feldman and I find that protections against anti-retaliation and firing can be more effective than monetary rewards for disclosure and that such protections are meaningful given the default silence of most employees (The Incentives Matrix: The Comparative Effectiveness of Reward, Liabilities, Duties and Protection for Reporting Illegality, Texas Law Review 2010). In another article, Citizenship, Organizational Citizenship, and the Laws of Overlapping Obligations. California Law Review, 2009, I describe the deep ambivalence of the law on the role of individual dissent in public and private organizations. I argued post-Garcetti that recent constitutional and private law cases have had the undesirable effect of denying protections to those most likely to identify and report corporate misconduct, especially in the public sector. The decision today is an important step in strengthening disclosure protections. As Neal Katyal, MacLean's lawyer, said during the oral arguments, the whistle-blower law was enacted to restrict government agencies, rather than empower them. Retroactively classifying a previously unclassified text message to fire a whistleblower is the kind of secrecy and agency empowerment we should worry about.

Posted by Orly Lobel on January 21, 2015 at 11:44 AM | Permalink


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