Supreme Court Rules Against Employer in Political Speech Case

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

May 3, 2016

The Supreme Court has ruled that a police officer demoted because his employer mistakenly believed he was campaigning for the mayor's political opponent may file suit for monetary damages. In Heffernan v. City of Paterson, the Court ruled 6-2 that the employer's action violated the officer's First Amendment rights.

The Supreme Court majority noted that the ruling sends a message to other employees. Writing for the Court, Justice Stephen Breyer said there is "constitutional harm" in discouraging employees from engaging in protected activities.

Public employers generally cannot take an adverse employment action based on an employee's political affiliations. While this case involves a public employee's free speech rights, many states have laws protecting employees in a range of off-duty activities, including political speech.

But this dispute presented an intriguing twist on the issue. A New Jersey police detective claimed his supervisor wrongly believed that he supported a candidate challenging the mayor. Instead, the detective said he was merely picking up a yard sign for his bedridden mother, who supported the challenger. The supervisor subsequently demoted him to a patrol officer position.

The Supreme Court found it irrelevant that the employer demoted the officer based on the mistaken belief that he was campaigning for the mayor's opponent. Justice Breyer explained that when an employer demotes an employee to prevent him from engaging in protected political activity, the employee may challenge that action under the First Amendment and Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act. This is true, the Court said, even if the employer's action was based on a factual mistake about the employee's behavior.