Unlike private employees, public employees have certain constitutional free speech rights in the workplace. A recent Supreme Court decision examined those rights in the context of perceived political activity.
Jeffrey Heffernan was a police officer working in the office of Paterson, New Jersey’s chief of police. Both the chief of police and Heffernan’s supervisor had been appointed by Paterson’s incumbent mayor, who was running for re-election against Lawrence Spagnola, a good friend of Heffernan’s. Heffernan was not involved in Spagnola’s campaign but, as a favor to his bedridden mother, he agreed to pick up and deliver a Spagnola yard poster to her. Other police officers observed Heffernan speaking to staff at a Spagnola distribution point while holding the yard sign. Word quickly spread throughout the force. The next day, Heffernan’s supervisors demoted him from detective to patrol officer as punishment for his “overt involvement” in Spagnola’s campaign. Heffernan filed suit under 42 U.S.C. §1983, which protects employees of public employers from adverse job actions if the reason for the employment decision is speech by the employee that is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, which, among other things, guarantees that public employers cannot take any action that would infringe upon his right to engage in free speech. Heffernan claimed that the police chief and the other defendants had demoted him because, in their mistaken view, he had engaged in conduct that constituted protected speech.
The trial court found that Heffernan had not been deprived of any constitutionally protected right because he had not engaged in any First Amendment conduct. The trial court’s decision was affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which concluded that Heffernan’s claim was only actionable under §1983 if the Police Department’s action was prompted by Heffernan’s actual exercise of his free-speech rights, and since the Department had acted based on his perceived exercise of his free-speech rights, his case was dismissed. Heffernan appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which, overturned the dismissal.
In its ruling, the Court 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 §1983, even if the employer’s actions are based on a mistaken belief about the employee’s behavior. The Court ruled that the only question is whether the undisputed reason for the adverse action is, in fact, protected by the First Amendment. According to the Court, the public employer’s motive is the determining factor, and if the Police Department demoted Heffernan on the mistaken belief that he had engaged in protected speech, that would violate §1983. The Court noted that the constitutional harm— discouraging employees from engaging in protected speech or association—is the same whether or not the employer’s action rests upon a factual mistake.
For the purposes of this opinion, the Court assumed that Heffernan’s employer demoted him based on an improper motive. However, the Court turned the case back to the trial court to determine the department’s actual motive and to see whether it may have acted under a neutral policy that prohibits police officers from overt involvement in any political campaign and, if such a policy exists, whether it complies with constitutional standards.