I’m always looking for interesting First Amendment cases, and this past Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court released its decision in Heffernan v. City of Paterson, where it reversed and remanded the lower court by a 6-2 vote in a decision written by Justice Breyer. The question presented was whether the First Amendment bars the government from demoting a public employee based on a supervisor’s perception that an employee supports a political candidate?
For factual background, Detective Heffernan was demoted by the chief of police after fellow officers saw him holding a yard sign and speaking with campaign workers for the challenger in the Paterson mayor race, although in reality, Heffernan was not involved in the campaign (and he did not even live in Paterson). He was picking up a sign for his bedridden mother, whose sign had been stolen from her yard. For his actions, Heffernan was demoted for “overt involvement” in the challenger’s campaign, even though his supervisor was mistaken. It should be noted that prior precedent has established that public workers cannot be blocked by an employer from exercising First Amendment rights during after work hours.
Justice Breyer held that when this employer demoted the employee out of a desire to prevent him from engaging in protected political activity, the employee is entitled to challenge that unlawful action under the First Amendment, even if the employer’s actions were based on a factual mistake about the employee’s actual conduct. The analysis focused on the employer’s act instead of harm to employee. A discharge or demotion based upon the employer’s belief that the employee engaged in protected political activity rises to the level of a constitutional harm, regardless if the belief rests on fact or mistake. Heffernan was demoted because his supervisor believed he was involved in a political campaign, and this demotion would discourage him and other employees from engaging in protected constitutional activities in the future. I certainly agree with the majority here.
Heffernan brought a Section 1983 action, the federal statute to seek damages for constitutional violations by state and local governments/officials when a person is deprived of a “right, privilege, or immunity secured by the Constitution,” and will now return to the district court to present his claims.
I reviewed two articles for this post: 1) http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/27/us/supreme-court-first-amendment-police-officer-demoted.html?_r= & 2) http://www.scotusblog.com/2016/04/opinion-analysis-improper-motive-can-violate-the-first-amendment-even-with-a-factual-mistake/
James Maisano, Esq.