Faculty Post: Fighting for Whistleblower Rights

by Emily Spieler, Hadley Professor of Law

Edward Snowden caused an international debate about whistleblowers when he turned secret national security information over to the media.  The conversation that has ensued about our privacy has been deeply important – both to our sense of our own democratic principles and to our understanding of the needs for secrecy in national intelligence.

But while Snowden may not be the typical whistleblower, he nevertheless represents a class of people who decide that they must step forward and raise concerns about activities they believe to be illegal or unsafe.  Sometimes, these concerns involve suspected evasion of laws.  Often they raise issues that affect the well-being of others.

Each year, close to 3,000 people bring complaints to the U.S. Department of Labor under 22 different whistleblower laws – laws that range from financial reporting under Sarbanes Oxley to mandates included in the Affordable Care Act to occupational safety violations under the Occupational Safety and Health Act to community environmental and safety under laws such as the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act.  Each of the people who brings forward one of these complaints feels that there has been retaliation for activity that most of us would think should be protected.  And this is only the tip of the iceberg.  Over 37,000 people brought complaints about retaliation for raising concerns about discrimination to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2012.  Many others brought complaints about retaliation under other labor and employment laws.

What happens to these people?  Many of them have been fired from the jobs.  Many of them cannot afford legal representation.  Many settle their cases without achieving full justice.

Members of the Northeastern community have long been at the forefront of fighting for the rights of people in these situations.

Graduate Stephen Kohn ’84 started his career, at a time that there were few protections, by representing whistleblowers and then founding the National Whistleblower Center, now the leading non-profit organization fighting for whistleblower rights.  He recently won a much heralded case for an IRS employee – garnering huge damages for the individual.

Unfortunately, many whistleblowers are not entitled to that kind of relief.  The vast majority are limited in the damages they can collect, and find themselves caught in administrative processes that have been the subject of considerable criticism.  In response, the Secretary of Labor last year appointed the Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee to provide advice on how to improve enforcement activities.  I was honored to be invited to chair this committee.

These connections to national activities link back directly to what we are doing here at the law school.  In my course on Job Security, we will be meeting and talking with people directly involved in this field.  Stephen Kohn taught a course last year on Whistleblower Law, bringing the breadth of his knowledge to students here.  The non-profit National Whistleblowers Center takes students on co-op, where they have direct hands-on experience with leading cases.

The way we think about this also affects how we function as a community.  How do we debate issues? How do we approach dissent and disagreement?  There is a constant effort here at NUSL to build understanding, based on real world connections, so that the students who study here – and those of us who teach here – are able to grow both more tolerant and more sophisticated in addressing these complex issues.


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