Supreme Court sides with police officer in free speech case

Supreme Court sides with police officer in free speech case
© Greg Nash

The Supreme Court sided with a New Jersey police officer Tuesday in a case challenging whether he could sue his bosses for punishing him over their mistaken belief that he was expressing his political views.

In a 6-2 decision, the court said Jeffrey Heffernan, a former Paterson, N.J., detective, had the right to bring a First Amendment challenge against the city even if he wasn’t actually participating in a political campaign.

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Heffernan was demoted to patrol officer after getting a political yard sign supporting the incumbent mayor's challenger. Heffernan sued the city, saying he was only picking up the sign as a favor for his bedridden mother.

The justices' decision sends the case back to the lower court, which sided with the city's claims that Heffernan's suit was only valid if his demotion was prompted by actual, rather than perceived, political speech.

The Supreme Court said it assumed that Heffernan’s demotion was an example of an unconstitutional retaliation because the incumbent mayor had appointed both Paterson’s chief of police and Heffernan’s supervisor. But the justices said the lower court should decide if the city acted under a neutral policy prohibiting officers from being overtly involved in any political campaign and whether such a policy, if one exists, is constitutional.

“There is some evidence in the record, however, suggesting that Heffernan’s employers may have dismissed him pursuant to a different and neutral policy prohibiting police officers from overt involvement in any political campaign,” wrote Justice Stephen Breyer in delivering the opinion of the court. “Whether that policy existed, whether Heffernan’s supervisors were indeed following it, and whether it complies with constitutional standards are all matters for the lower courts to decide in the first instance.”

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.”