In a 6-to-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that when a public employer demotes an employee in order to prevent the employee from exercising his free-speech rights, the employee may challenge that action as a violation of the First Amendment and §1983, even if the employer was mistaken about the employee’s behavior. The Court found that the government’s motive is what matters and that the constitutional violation of discouraging employees from engaging in protected political activity and speech is the same regardless of whether or not the employer was mistaken about the employee’s political involvement. Heffernan v. City of Paterson, 578 U.S. ___ (2016).

Supervisor Assumed Employee Supported Opposing Candidate

Jeffrey Heffernan was a police officer in Paterson, N.J., a twenty-year veteran of the force. After being promoted to detective in 2005, he was assigned to the office of the chief of police. In April 2006, the city was in the middle of a mayoral election where the incumbent had the support of Heffernan’s supervisors, but the challenger was a former Paterson police chief and friend of Heffernan. Heffernan could not even vote in the election as he did not live in the city but his mother did.

One afternoon, while off duty, Heffernan went, at his mother’s request, to the challenger’s campaign office to get a new yard sign for his mother’s yard. Other members of the police force saw him with the sign. The following day, Heffernan’s supervisors demoted him to patrol officer and assigned him to a walking patrol post. They demoted him as punishment for what they thought was his “overt involvement” in the challenger’s campaign, even though that belief was mistaken. Heffernan was not involved in the campaign but merely picked up the sign to help his bedridden mother.

Heffernan sued, alleging his demotion violated the First Amendment. He asserted that his supervisors demoted him because they thought he engaged in constitutionally protected speech, even though they were mistaken about his actions. The district court and Third Circuit Court of Appeals rejected his claim, holding that a free-speech retaliation claim under §1983 lies only when the government retaliated against an employee who actually exercised his First Amendment rights, not on the mistaken perception that he exercised protected rights.

High Court Rules In Favor Of First Amendment Protection

Generally, the First Amendment prohibits government officials from dismissing or demoting an employee because that employee engaged in constitutionally protected political activity or speech. Heffernan argued that the government’s motive in taking an adverse employment action is the key to a public employee’s retaliation claim. He alleged that as long as a government employer believed that the employee was engaged in protected activity and took adverse action because of that belief, the employer violated the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court agreed. Writing for the majority, Justice Breyer stated that “the government’s reason for demoting Heffernan is what counts here.” The Court ruled that when a government employer demotes an employee because it wants to prevent the employee from engaging in political activity protected by the First Amendment, the employee is entitled to challenge that unlawful action under the First Amendment and §1983, even if the employer is acting upon a factual mistake regarding the employee’s behavior. The Court stated that the employer’s mistake does not diminish the risk of harm to the demoted employee or to others who fear similar adverse consequences of engaging in protected activity.

The Court left the door open, however, for government employers to adopt a neutral policy that prohibits police officers from overt involvement in any political campaign. Whether a specific neutral policy meets constitutional muster is a question the Court left for another day.

It’s the Employer’s Ill Motive that Matters, Not the Employee’s Exercise of Rights

The Court’s ruling today means that a public employer can be held liable for violating an employee’s constitutional rights even where the employee admits he wasn’t exercising those rights. The public employer’s desire or motive to keep the employee from engaging in protected political activity is enough to give the employee a viable claim for damages under §1983 regardless of whether the employee engaged in any activity protected by the Constitution.