WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a New Jersey police officer who was demoted after his boss mistakenly believed he was involved in a political campaign can still bring a lawsuit alleging a violation of free speech rights.
The 6-2 ruling said Jeffrey Heffernan could file a First Amendment claim against the city of Paterson, New Jersey, even if he wasn’t actually taking sides in the local mayoral race.
Heffernan claimed he was a victim of retaliation after other officers saw him picking up a campaign sign and talking to campaign workers. It turns out Heffernan was really picking up the sign for his mother and was not involved in the campaign.
Lower courts ruled against Heffernan, saying the government doesn’t violate First Amendment rights unless a person is actually exercising those rights.
But Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority, said that what counts is the employer’s motive, even if it was mistaken.
“When an employer demotes an employee out of a desire to prevent that employee from engaging in political activity that the First Amendment protects, the employee is entitled to challenge that unlawful action under the First Amendment,” Breyer said.
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, saying the city’s demotion may have been misguided, but it didn’t infringe on Heffernan’s free speech rights since he wasn’t actually using them. He was joined by Justice Samuel Alito.
The case began in 2006 after another police officer saw Heffernan holding a campaign sign for Lawrence Spagnola, a former Paterson police chief seeking to oust incumbent mayor Jose Torres. The city’s police chief and other police officials were backing Torres.
A day after Heffernan was seen carrying the yard sign for Spagnola, his supervisors demoted him from detective to patrol officer walking the beat. A judge ultimately threw out his lawsuit against the city and a federal appeals court affirmed.
Lawyers for Heffernan said it didn’t matter that Heffernan wasn’t actually campaigning — his superiors punished him based on the assumption he was. The city argued that officials can’t violate First Amendment rights unless a person is actually exercising those rights.
The Supreme Court’s decision does not necessarily mean Heffernan will win his lawsuit. The justices sent the case back to lower courts to determine whether New Jersey officials might have been acting under a neutral policy that generally prohibits police officers from “overt involvement in any political campaign.”