On April 26, 2016, the Supreme Court decided Heffernan v. City of Paterson. Jeffrey Heffernan was a police officer for the City of Paterson, New Jersey. A fellow police officer observed Heffernan picking up a campaign sign for the mayoral candidate running against the incumbent. Although Heffernan disclaimed any political motives and said he was merely picking the sign up for his mother, his supervisor demoted him. Heffernan sued Paterson claiming a violation of his First Amendment rights, but lost on the grounds that, his supervisor’s erroneous belief notwithstanding, the fact that Heffernan was not actually engaged in political activity doomed his claim. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the trial court’s judgment. The question before the Supreme Court was whether the First Amendment bars the government from demoting a public employee based on a supervisor's perception that the employee supports a political candidate.
By a vote of 6-2, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Third Circuit and remanded the case. Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court, which held that when an employer demotes an employee out of a desire to prevent the employee from engaging in protected political activity, the employee is entitled to challenge that unlawful action under the First Amendment and Section 1983 even if the employer's actions are based on a factual mistake about the employee's behavior. Justice Breyer was joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Alito joined.
To discuss the case, we have Adele Keim, who is counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.