How decent of the Supreme Court to decide this easy to figure out case. The lower courts ruling was almost hilarious. “Since you weren’t actually campaigning, you can be fired for campaigning.”
The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday for an officer with the Paterson, N.J., Police Department who was demoted because his bosses thought — mistakenly, as it turned out — that he was campaigning for a challenger to the mayor.
The court ruled 6 to 2 that the actions of then-Police Chief James Wittig in disciplining Officer Jeffrey Heffernan violated the officer’s First Amendment rights.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer acknowledged that it was an unusual case because Heffernan was not actually exercising his free-speech rights — Heffernan claims he was picking up a campaign sign for mayoral candidate Lawrence Spagnola on behalf of his bedridden mother.
Lower courts had thrown out Heffernan’s lawsuit against his superiors because he was not actually campaigning for Spagnola.
But Breyer said the key to the case was not Heffernan’s actions but the motivation of the police chief, whose loyalty was to the incumbent mayor, Jose Torres.
“The government’s reason for demoting Heffernan is what counts here,” Breyer 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.”
With a few exceptions, such as neutral laws prohibiting public employees from engaging in partisan activities, the Constitution protects an employee’s freedom to participate in political activity. More
Justice Clarence Thomas disagreed with the court’s majority. In his dissenting opinion, which Justice Samuel Alito joined, he said Heffernan can’t allege that his employer interfered with his right to free speech when he admits he was not engaging in a constitutionally protected activity.
“If the facts are as Heffernan has alleged, the city’s demotion of him may be misguided or wrong,” he wrote. “But, because Heffernan concedes that he did not exercise his First Amendment rights, he has no cause of action.” More