Is the Whistleblower Protection Act Strong Enough to Protect Federal Employees?

On November 4, the Supreme Court heard argument in Department of Homeland Security v. MacLean, a case that demonstrates the hurdles that federal employees must clear in order to receive whistleblower protection under the Whistleblower Protection Act. The WPA has often been criticized for not being able to do the one thing it’s supposed to – protect whistleblowers. Efforts have been made to bolster the WPA, but as we see in MacLean, the many requirements that whistleblowers must meet under the law make actually obtaining relief highly problematic.

downloadRobert MacLean was removed from his position as a federal air marshal in 2006 for giving a reporter “sensitive security information.” MacLean had contacted the reporter back in 2003, divulging plans the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) had to remove air marshals from long distance flights. He challenged his dismissal under the WPA. Now, the Supreme Court will decide whether MacLean’s divulging of “sensitive security information” was “specifically prohibited by law.”

Federal employees are not allowed to bring First Amendment claims, as they must go through the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) and the WPA for redress. So in Maclean’s case, the Supreme Court will determine whether his speech was “specifically prohibited by law” under the WPA rather than evaluating whether or not his speech was of public concern.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor has said the facts are in MacLean’s favor, but he has been embroiled in this case for eight years and counting, and if his case is sent back to the Federal Circuit, the painstaking wait could continue still longer. The bottom line is that MacLean and other federal employees may be denied relief when even when their First Amendment rights are arguably violated. The hoops they must jump through are many, the odds of actually achieving relief are daunting, and the time it takes to resolve these claims can exhaust both financial and emotional reserves. If we are really interested in having whistleblowers come forward and expose matters of public concern, why are we not doing more to protect them?