Heffernan v. City of Paterson

Justia Summary

The Paterson, New Jersey, chief of police and Officer Heffernan’s supervisor were appointed by Paterson’s incumbent mayor, who was running for re-election against Heffernan's friend, Spagnola. Heffernan was not involved in Spagnola’s campaign. As a favor to his bed-ridden mother, Heffernan delivered her Spagnola campaign yard sign. Other officers reported seeing Heffernan at a Spagnola distribution point while holding that sign. The next day, Heffernan’s supervisors demoted him from detective to patrol officer as punishment for “overt involvement” in Spagnola’s campaign. Heffernan filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983. Affirming the district court, the Third Circuit concluded that Heffernan’s claim was actionable under Section 1983 only if his employer’s action was prompted by Heffernan’s actual, rather than his perceived, exercise of free-speech rights. The Supreme Court reversed. 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. An employer’s motive, and the facts as the employer reasonably understood them, matter in determining violation of the First Amendment. The harm— discouraging employees from engaging in protected speech or association—is the same, regardless of factual mistake. The lower courts should decide whether the employer may have acted under a neutral policy prohibiting police officers from overt involvement in any political campaign and whether such a policy would comply with constitutional standards.