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Taking a broad view of National Whistleblower Appreciation Day

Though most whistleblowers escape the headlines the threat of retribution silences many who know the facts but fear to blow the whistle.

photo of a referee's whistle
It was activist Ralph Nader who first fashioned the term “whistle-blower,” derived from the familiar whistle that referees use to spot an illegal or foul play.

Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’  And there comes a time when   one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but we must take it because our conscience tells us that it is right. 

—Martin Luther King, Jr.

Historically and generally speaking, the term “whistleblower” is most often applied to employees sharing tales of malfeasance in government entities or corporations. In recent months Minnesotans, particularly MPR listeners, have heard the term applied even more frequently to allegations of fraud and abuse in universities, corporations and ecclesiastical circles. Whatever the setting, the risky role of whistleblowers – and their need for legal protection — will be feted on National Whistleblower Appreciation Day Thursday, July 30, 2015.

The date commemorates the July 30, 1778 passage by the Continental Congress of the first whistleblower protection law. By passing that law the Founding Fathers resolved that “it is the duty of all persons in the service of the United States, as well as all other inhabitants thereof, to give the earliest information to Congress or any other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds or misdemeanors committed by any persons in the service of these states, which may come to their knowledge.”

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Robert Greenwald of Brave New Films says “a time to honor whistleblowers and push for the de-criminalization of truth telling describes national Whistleblower Appreciation Day.” Greenwald goes on to underscore that “whistleblowers are pioneers of change who risk everything – their livelihood, homes and freedom – to tell the truth in hopes of making the world a better place.”

It was activist Ralph Nader who first fashioned the term “whistle-blower,” derived from the familiar whistle that referees use to spot an illegal or foul play. Nader’s intent was to replace what he considered loaded pejorative terms such as “snitch” and “informer”, intentionally used to squelch unwelcome disclosure of workplace conditions.

Though much national  focus is on contemporary headline whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, the roster of individuals who have earned the title is as diverse as it is extensive. Politico’s photo gallery of famous and infamous whistleblowers offers a broad swath of examples, some better known for their cinematic portrayals than for their real-life persona.

Though there are many legal permutations, the fundamental legislation generally cited is the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, Public Law 101-12 as amended. This is the federal law that protects federal whistleblowers who work for the government and report agency misconduct. The law states that “A federal agency violates the Whistleblower Protection Act if agency authorities take (or threaten to take) retaliatory personnel action against any employee or applicant because of disclosure of information by that employee or applicant. Whistleblowers‪ may file complaints that they believe reasonably evidence a violation of a law, rule or regulation; gross mismanagement; gross waste of funds; an abuse of authority; or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.”

Clearly, the law refers to public information, federal agencies, employees and actions. Still, it sets a pace for industry, corporations, nonprofits, even faith-based entities, to pay heed to whistleblower protection.

In 2013 the effort to shield whistleblowers was strengthened by unanimous passage vote of a Senate Resolution offered by Senator Charles Grassley to establish the Senate Whistleblower Protection Caucus. The resolution requires that a bipartisan coalition of Senators be directed to “work to ensure whistleblowers in all sectors obtain meaningful protections.”

Key to implementation of the Senate Resolution is the National Whistleblower Center, a prime organizer and sponsor of National Whistleblower Day. NWC promotes a bipartisan approach to whistleblower protection and plumbs the history of whistleblower law.

The National Whistleblower Legal Defense & Education Fund (NWLDEF) maintains a robust blog that traces over two decades of whistleblower laws and legal determinations. The NWLDEF blog provides a reliable up-to-date report all things whistleblower-related.

A quick search discloses a wealth of resources for individuals seeking to know more about legal issues related to whistleblowers’ rights at the federal level. For example, the NWC offers a Guide to Federal Whistleblower Laws and Regulations, The Whistleblower’s Handbook, and a brief Know Your (Whistleblower) Rights FAQ that serves as a good starting point.

Needless to say, Minnesota law is a whole other issue. The State Law Library has updated its listing of whistleblower-related resources, including several cited in this post. Find that guide here.  Of special interest is Marshall Tannick’s lively narrative of Minnesota’s rather slow embrace of whistleblower protections. Though I am not legally trained or certified I was able to understand Tannick’s article. I was also able to comprehend much of the Bench & Bar 2013 review of whistleblower protection law in Minnesota.

Though most whistleblowers escape the headlines the threat of retribution silences many who know the facts but fear to blow the whistle. The goal of National Whistleblower Day is to increase public awareness of the history, legal protections and unique role of whistleblowers, whatever the context, challenge, motivation or the impediments that inhibit whistleblower wannabes from taking action.

Whistleblowers and leaders from a mix of national organizations will be meeting in Washington, D.C. on National Whistleblower Appreciation Day for what is now identified as the Whistleblower Summit for Civil and Human Rights. Participants will continue efforts connect whistleblower and First Amendment advocates with each other and with the broader civil rights and global human rights movements. The theme of the 2015 Summit is Black Lives Matter — This Is the Movement!

Whistleblowers – from Ralph Nader to Daniel Ellsberg to Karen Silkwood to Coleen Rowley to Jennifer Hasselberger, along with countless anonymous truth-tellers – have changed history. Regardless of their work situation whistleblowers deserve protection from on-the-job retaliation and appreciation for a better-informed public.

National Whistleblower Appreciation Day ~ Thursday, July 30, 2015

This post was written by Mary Treacy and originally published on Poking Around with Mary.

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