[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Tuesday in Heffernan v. City of Paterson [SCOTUSblog materials] that when an employer demotes an employee based on participation in a protected political activity, the employee is entitled to challenge the demotion under Section 1983 [LII materials] and the First Amendment, even when the employer demoted the employee based on an incorrect factual understanding of the employee’s political activities. The court, in a 6-2 opinion authored by Justice Stephen Breyer, stated that the heart of the matter was the employer’s motive and reasons for demoting the employee and not the employee’s actions. The court distinguished Waters v. Churchill [opinion], which involved the inverse situation in which the employer did not know the content of the employee’s speech and acted on a mistaken belief that it was not protected by the First Amendment. In this case, even though the employer was mistaken in what political speech it thought the employee was engaged in, the speech was nevertheless protected by the First Amendment, and the employer knew this. Breyer penned, “After all, in law, what is sauce for the goose is normally sauce for the gander.”
The case concerns Jeffrey Heffernan [SCOTUSblog report], a detective and later chief of police in New Jersey who, because it was perceived that he supported an opposing mayoral candidate, was demoted from his office to that of a patrol officer. A fellow officer thought that he saw Heffernan holding a yard sign and speaking with campaign workers for the challenger candidate. However, Heffernan was actually picking up a sign for his bedridden mother, whose sign had been stolen from her yard. He was subsequently demoted. The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit [official website] rejected his claim that his demotion was violative of the First Amendment.