On April 26, the United States Supreme Court decided Heffernan v. City of Paterson, finding that government employees who are demoted because their employer believes they are engaging in constitutionally protected political activity may challenge their employer’s action under the First Amendment of the Constitution and 42 U.S.C. § 1983, even if the employer was factually mistaken about the employee's conduct.
In 2005, Jeffrey Heffernan worked as a police officer for the Paterson, New Jersey, Police Department. Paterson's mayor was running a contested reelection campaign. Members of the Police Department saw Heffernan obtain a campaign sign from the headquarters of the mayor’s opponent and concluded that he was supporting the opponent. On that basis, Heffernan was demoted. In reality, Heffernan had picked up the sign for his mother.
Heffernan filed a section 1983 claim against the Police Department, arguing that the Police Department’s actions violated his constitutional right to free speech. Both the district court and the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled against Heffernan. The Supreme Court reversed.
The Supreme Court recognized that “[w]ith a few exceptions, the Constitution prohibits a government employer from discharging or demoting an employee because the employee supports a particular political candidate.” The Supreme Court presumed that any exceptions to this rule did not apply and the type of conduct the Police Department thought Heffernan had engaged in was constitutionally protected. It then considered whether the Police Department’s decision to demote Heffernan was actionable because the Police Department perceived that Heffernan was exercising his constitutional rights when he retrieved the sign, although in fact he was not.
Finding that neither section 1983 nor the Court’s precedent clearly answered the precise question, the Supreme Court concluded that “the employer’s motive, and in particular the facts as the employer reasonably understood them,” are “what counts[.]” Reasoning that the First Amendment restricts Government conduct, it held that “[w]hen 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. § 1983 - even if . . . the employer makes a factual mistake about the employee’s behavior.”