In 2003, federal air marshal Robert MacLean disclosed plans the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) had to cut security on certain flights. He told MSNBC that TSA was eliminating air marshals on overnight flights to Las Vegas. The network then televised a report saying that security was being eliminated on some flights despite a hijacking warning by the Department of Homeland Security. When the TSA found out MacLean leaked the information, he was fired. MacLean sued for wrongful termination and sought whistleblower protections, arguing that his disclosure were not banned by law. The case went all the way up to the United States Supreme Court, which sided with MacLean.
In the lawsuit, the government argued that TSA lawfully fired MacLean under a law that bars TSA employees from leaking sensitive security information that is detrimental to transportation security. MacLean countered by claiming that he was protected from firing under a federal whistleblower law that protects employees who reveal a “substantial and specific danger to public health or safety,” unless the disclosure is “specifically prohibited by law.”
According to the Supreme Court, although TSA regulations banned the disclosure, the law authorizing such regulations did not. In other words, the TSA regulations banning the release of sensitive security information did not amount to a “law,” and therefore MacLean’s disclosures were not specifically prohibited by law.
MacLean claimed that he complained to his superiors about TSA’s plans to save money by eliminating air marshals on certain flights. When his complaints made no impact, MacLean went to the media. When he challenged his termination in court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled MacLean could argue he was entitled to whistleblower protection under the federal whistleblower law. The U.S. Supreme Court’s upholding of this ruling will have a major impact on federal whistleblower cases in the future.
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