SCOTUS Victory For Police Officer’s First Amendment Rights May Be Short Lived

Jeffrey Heffernan, a police officer in the City of Paterson, New Jersey, was demoted from the position of detective after being observed by fellow officers holding a yard sign supporting the challenger in Paterson’s mayoral race. This action was taken pursuant to a policy prohibiting “overt involvement” by police officers in political campaigns. However, notwithstanding that the challenger was Heffernan’s good friend, that Heffernan was not involved in his campaign, and nor Heffernan even eligible to vote in that election, the yard sign in question was being picked up on behalf of his bedridden mother. Following his demotion, Heffernan brought an action against the City under § 1983 for the violation of his constitutional rights.

Writing for the majority, Justice Breyer began by examining § 1983 itself, noting that preliminary question of whether the focus should be on the plaintiff’s activity or on the defendant’s reasons for acting, based on the believed facts and corresponding motive. The majority concluded that it was the employer’s reasons which were at issue, citing Waters v. Churchill in support.  In Waters, the Court had held a government employer did not violate the First Amendment by firing an employee for what the employer reasonably, but mistakenly, believed was speech involving solely personal matters.  Thus here, where the employer mistakenly believed that the employee engaged in protected speech, the employer’s motives should again be the focus. Or, as reflected in Justice Breyer’s flair for the colloquial, “what is sauce for the goose is normally sauce for the gander.”

Looking at the employer’s motivation, the Court concluded the employer would know that the speech in question was protected under the First Amendment, and found the demotion to be unconstitutional.  Yet this victory for Heffernan may be fleeting, as the Court assumed in its decision that Heffernan was demoted because of his supervisor’s belief that he was speaking in support of a mayoral candidate. The Court remanded the question of whether a neutral office policy prohibiting all police officers from any over involvement in any political campaign was constitutional, and by extension a valid ground for demoting Heffernan.

The case was Heffernan v. City of Paterson, N.J., 2016 WL 1627953 (U.S. Apr. 26, 2016). The full decision can be found here:

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