The U.S. Supreme Court sided with former Paterson police officer Jeffrey J. Heffernan and ruled that his First Amendment rights were violated when he was demoted after picking up a campaign sign for the mayor’s opponent. Heffernan had been demoted after supporters of Mayor Jose “Joey” Torres saw him picking up a campaign sign for challenger Lawrence Spagnola, a former police chief. The police officer said he was off duty and simply was picking up the sign for his mother.
“When an employer demotes an employee out of a desire to prevent the employee from engaging in political activity that the First Amendment protects, the employee is entitled to challenge that unlawful action under the First Amendment” even if “the employer makes a factual mistake about the employee’s behavior,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority in the 6-2 decision.
The case now goes to back to the U.S. District Court to determine whether Heffernan was the victim of retaliation, and if so, what damages he would be entitled to. Hefffernan was initially was awarded more than $100,000 by a jury, however a U.S. District Court judge and then the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that his rights were not violated because he wasn’t actually supporting the challenger.
The city had been supported in legal briefs by several municipal organizations, including the National Conference of State Legislatures, National Association of Counties, National League of Cities and U.S. Conference of Mayors. Heffernan received support in briefs filed by the U.S. government, as well as the National Association of Government Employees and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented, noting that Heffernan said he was not exercising any First Amendment rights. “Heffernan denies speaking in support of or associating with the Spagnola campaign,” Thomas wrote. “He has claimed that he picked up the yard sign only as an errand for his bedridden mother. Demoting a dutiful son who aids his elderly, bedridden mother may be callous, but it is not unconstitutional.”
This is an important decision for all public safety officers and public employees in the State of New Jersey as politics often permeate into the workplace and thus clarification of what is protected speech is needed.