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Navigating the choppy waters of internal whistleblowing

All whistleblowers pay huge costs for their honesty and courage. But internal whistleblowers, who have few legal protections, endure the greatest hardships. Here’s what you need to know to support and encourage them and to protect yourself if you ever become a whistleblower.

“We must do something to stop the commodore. He disobeys orders, takes government property for himself, uses our ship for smuggling and orders the torture of our British prisoners. He is evil and corrupt.” We can only imagine secret conversations such as these among 10 sailors late one night in 1777 aboard the Warren, a U.S. naval warship anchored off the coast of Rhode Island. What we do know is that the men sent a letter to the Continental Congress that described the illegal and violent deeds of their commodore, Esek Hopkins, setting in motion efforts that resulted in the world’s first law to protect whistleblowers. 

Third Lieutenant Samuel Shaw and Midshipman Richard Marven were among the 10 who figuratively jumped ship against Hopkins. When Congress received the whistleblower petitions, they immediately acted by relieving Hopkins of his command. The Navy ultimately dismissed him. He took revenge by filing a libel suit against the whistleblowers in Rhode Island where his politically powerful family lived, landing the whistleblowers in a Providence jail. 

The newly formed Congress, acting on a petition from Marven and Shaw, enacted the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1778, the first such legislation in the U.S. and the world. The law obligated all U.S. inhabitants to report government wrongdoing and protected them from retaliation. (See “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 – 1875,” U.S. Library of Congress and “Whistleblower’s Handbook,” by Stephen Martin Kohn, Rowan & Littlefield.)

Congress also ordered all records related to the former commodore’s removal be made public and approved payment of Marven and Shaw’s legal fees of $1,418 (equivalent to $30,445 in 2022). (See “Whistleblower’s Handbook.”) Marven and Shaw won their case. Their lawyers were paid. History was made.

Since then, external whistleblowers have continued to suffer as a result of their honesty and courage — often losing their jobs, livelihoods and wellbeing. Yet while U.S. external sentinels do receive some legal protection from federal laws, internal whistleblowers often have no legal recourse and can be forced to air their concerns externally. That’s because they must navigate a legal maze of more than two dozen U.S. laws, with varying requirements that ultimately may offer them little or no protection. Faced with such prospects, internal whistleblowers may simply give up. 

Here we describe differences between internal and external whistleblowers, why organizations don’t support internal whistleblowers, reasons for protecting whistleblowers and legislation proposals to protect internal whistleblowers.

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