Kohn Op-Ed in New York Times tells the story behind America’s first whistleblower protection law

Stephen M. Kohn, Executive Director of the National Whistleblowers Center (NWC), published an op-ed article in today’s New York Times.The article tells the story of Captain John Grannis, and nine other sailors of the Continental Navy. The full story is contained in The Whistleblower’s Handbook. The actual documents from the Continental Congress are linked here.

These courageous sailors and marines petitioned the Continental Congress to relieve the commander of the Continental Navy, Commodore Esek Hopkins. The sailors reported that Hopkins had engaged in misconduct including, the torture of British prisoners of war.

On March, 26, 1777, the Continental Congress accepted the petition and suspended Hopkins as leader of the Navy. he would later be formally discharged.

Hopkins was politically connected, and he retaliated immediately against America’s first whistleblowers. He filed a criminal libel case against the whistleblowers in Rhode Island’s court. Samuel Shaw, a midshipman, and Richard Marven, a third lieutenant, were detained during the proceedings. On July 23, 1778, they pleaded to Congress that they had been “arrested for doing what they then believed and still believe was nothing but their duty.”

Without any recorded dissent, Congress declared:

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 officers or persons in the service of these states, which may come to their knowledge.

Congress did not stop there. It also authorized payment for the legal fees of Marven and Shaw. Kohn calls this act "America’s first whistle-blower-protection law." With the help of attorney William Channing, the whistleblowers won an acquittal.

Kohn points out that today’s America does not go so far in protecting whistleblowers. The Obama Administration is detaining and prosecuting Bradley Manning for allegedly releasing documents to WikiLeaks. It also prosecuted Thomas Drake for disclosing mismanagement of the National Security Administration (NSA) to the Baltimore Sun. Today’s whistleblowers have no protection when they lose their security clearance, and employees of the NSA and CIA are excluded from the Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA).

Kohn’s article is a fitting tribute to the First Amendment on the fortieth anniversary of the day the New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers.

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