SCOTUS Overturns Political Expression Case

HeffernanThe Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protects a public employee who was demoted after management thought he had certain political interests. The Paterson, N.J., detective, Jeffrey Heffernan, was demoted to patrol officer after picking up a sign for his bedridden mother. The sign supported a mayoral candidate that the police chief opposed.

Lower courts ruled that the employees' demotion was acceptable because the act of carrying the sign was a perceived, rather than an actual, expression of political support. According to a Society for HR Management (SHRM) article, "So because Heffernan had not actually supported the candidate, the courts ruled that his right to free speech had not been violated."

But the Supreme Court overturned that decision, expanding the First Amendment protection to include perceived political expression. In its opinion, the court wrote, "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 and 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983-even if, as here, the employer makes a factual mistake about the employee's behavior."

SHRM explains, "Moreover, the constitutional harm-discouraging employees from engaging in protected speech-is the same whether the employer's action is based upon a factual mistake or if the employer was correct in its assumption, the court ruled."

Image source.

Discussion Starters:

  • This is a fairly complicated case. Explain it in your own words, including the implications for public employers.
  • What if Heffernan worked for a private employer? Would he have had the same constitutional protection?