SUPREME COURT: EMPLOYER CAN’T PUNISH EMPLOYEE FOR (NOT) EXERCISING 1ST AMENDMENT RIGHTS
Last week the Supreme Court issued an important decision protecting First Amendment rights. Heffernan v. City of Paterson involved the following facts: Jeffrey Heffernan, a detective in the City of Paterson, New Jersey police department, picked up a lawn sign from a distribution point for the campaign of the mayoral candidate running against the incumbent mayor. Another police officer, passing by, saw Heffernan holding the sign. The following day, Heffernan was told that he had been reassigned to nighttime foot patrol and that his actions were considered “overt involvement” in the mayoral challenger’s campaign. Both the Chief of Police and Heffernan’s supervisor had been appointed by the incumbent mayor.
Heffernan sued the City of Paterson in federal court, claiming that it had violated his First Amendment rights to free speech and free association. In defense, the city argued that it could not violate Heffernan’s First Amendment rights because, by his own admission, he was not actually exercising those rights. Indeed, Heffernan admitted that he was not, in fact, exercising his constitutionally protected rights; he testified that the sign was not for him, that he was picking it up for his bedridden mother whose lawn sign had been stolen, that he was not involved in the campaign, and that he was a non-resident of Paterson and, as a result, could not even vote in the mayoral election.
Given these facts, the case addressed an interesting legal question: does the First Amendment prohibit the government from demoting a public employee based on a supervisor’s perception that the employee is engaged in protected activity? The Supreme Court answered that question “yes.” The Court decided that when an employer demotes an employee in an effort to prevent him from engaging in constitutionally protected political activity, the employee can challenge that action under the First Amendment even if the employer was mistaken about the employee’s behavior.