Respect the Founders’ wishes: Honor National Whistleblower Day

The ink was hardly dry on the Declaration of Independence when the newly founded United States experienced its first band of whistleblowers. In 1777, ten sailors and Marines stepped forward and reported serious misconduct concerning Esek Hopkins, commander in chief of the Continental Navy. After their disclosures, Hopkins was suspended, accused of “being a hindrance to the proper manning of the fleet,” and removed from his position. The whistleblowers were fully supported by Samuel Adams and others who advocated that fundamental human rights were protected under a “common law Constitution,” which included the right to expose government wrongdoing. Honoring the claims of the whistleblowers, the Continental Congress passed what very well may be the world’s first whistleblower law on July 30, 1778.

The Founders’ resolution read:

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.

Best of all, this resolution went much further than just enacting parchment rights. It had teeth, authorizing the release of all documents provided by the whistleblowers. Although the Founders faced treason charges if the war for independence was unsuccessful, the Congress did not hesitate in releasing these documents that were embarrassing to the U.S. government. The Congress even went so far as to provide funds allowing for the whistleblowers to hire top notch legal counsel to defend themselves in a retaliatory criminal libel suit filed by their former commander. The whistleblowers won and Hopkins was stripped of his position.

When I rediscovered and retold the story of this historical incident in 2011, the significance was not lost upon Congress. Jump forward to 2013 and the United States Senate has unanimously passed the first Whistleblower Appreciation Day resolution, recognizing the importance of what the Founders did in 1778. This resolution called on every federal agency to honor those actions and educate their employees as to what whistleblowers have meant to our country throughout its history.

Passed each year since, we have seen a growing number of federal agencies heed the call. A wide array of political officials and public servants, spanning across the political spectrum, have spoken at National Whistleblower Day celebrations over the years. This has included the chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the secretary of Labor, the inspectors general from the National Security Agency, and representatives from the Department of Justice and the Office of Special Counsel. Lawmakers from both parties have given speeches in support of whistleblowers, and numerous agencies have followed the Senate resolution by issuing statements and conducting in-house trainings.

And yet, these efforts are just scratching the surface. In order to make significant change, the President of the United States must permanently implement the resolution of the Senate and require every federal agency to honor whistleblower day annually. Otherwise, whistleblowers throughout the federal government will continue to be misunderstood, slammed and left jobless. Five whistleblowers have stepped forward this year to lead this charge, calling on President Biden to solidify National Whistleblower Day once and for all.

While the efforts to change the negative culture and attitudes about whistleblowing continue, the significance of this 1778 resolution – done at the height of the Revolution, when the whistleblowers risked their lives, properties and sacred honors – cannot be lost. We now have proof that whistleblowers have made invaluable contributions. They have saved lives, recovered billions of fraudulent dollars, protected the environment, and put an end to major global corruption schemes. This is just the beginning.

We need a week when every federal employee that enters their office sees a bulletin board with information on the importance of whistleblowing. Top leadership cannot just dish this information out, but must be actively celebrating the achievements of their own agencies’ whistleblowers, viewing them as heroes who have only made their office stronger. Employees must know that this protected activity goes back to the founding of the Republic, and that whistleblowing is central to our right to the freedom of speech. Whistleblowing originated, thanks to those ten sailors, within the federal service. It was supported then and should be supported now.

We have seen firsthand that a pro-whistleblower culture within an agency has a direct effort on the willingness of people to come forward. In 2019, then-Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson had celebrated National Whistleblower Day and came out in staunch support of whistleblowers before his agency. Not long after, the “Ukraine whistleblower” filed a complaint concerning conversations between U.S. President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Despite the controversy surrounding their claims, the recognition of the importance of whistleblowing by top leadership in the agency held firm, and Atkinson refused to release any information that may have exposed the person’s identity. That is how culture changes, both in the willingness of employees to step forward and the protection of these individuals by top management, even under immense external pressure.

National Whistleblower Day must be honored across the United States. It is important to step back and remember what whistleblowers have achieved and how they have served the public interest year after year.

Stephen M. Kohn is an adjunct professor at Northeastern University School of Law and author of “Rules for Whistleblowers: A Handbook for Doing What’s Right.” Kohn’s historical research uncovered the untold story behind America’s first whistleblowers in 2011.

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