The U.S. Supreme Court just made an important decision that will affect government employees nationwide.
A New Jersey police officer was demoted for picking up a political campaign sign for his bedridden mother.
Petitioner Heffernan was a police officer working in the office of Paterson, New Jersey’s chief of police. Both the chief of police and Heffernan’s supervisor had been appointed by Paterson’s incumbent mayor, who was running for re-election against Lawrence Spagnola, a good friend of Heffernan’s. Heffernan was not involved in Spagnola’s campaign in any capacity. As a favor to his bedridden mother, Heffernan agreed to pick up and deliver to her a Spagnola campaign yard sign. Other police officers observed Heffernan speaking to staff at a Spagnola distribution point while holding the yard sign. Word quickly spread throughout the force. The next day, Heffernan’s supervisors demoted him from detective to patrol officer as punishment for his “overt involvement” in Spagnola’s campaign. Heffernan filed suit, claiming that the police chief and the other respondents had demoted him because, in their mistaken view, he had engaged in conduct that constituted protected speech. They had thereby “depriv[ed]” him of a “right . . . secured by the Constitution.”
Becket asked the Court to protect the Officer Hefferman’s first Amendment rights of free speech and his right to freely assemble.
The Supreme Court ruled 6-2 in favor of Officer Hefferman.
“It’s sad that this case had to go all the way to the Supreme Court for the City of Paterson, New Jersey to learn that freedom of speech and the right to assemble are core rights of American citizens.” (Stephanie Barclay, counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty).
“Especially in an election year it is crucial that the rights of speech and assembly are protected,” added Barclay. “All Americans have to be able to participate in the political process without fear of retribution.”
The dissent – The dissent to this decision is interesting (from Justice Thomas joined with Justice Scalia)
“The majority surmises that an attempted violation of an employee’s First Amendment rights can be just as harmful as a successful deprivation of First Amendment rights. Ante, at 7. And the majority concludes that the City’s demotion of Heffernan based on his wrongfully perceived association with a political campaign is no different from the City’s demotion of Heffernan based on his actual association with a political campaign.
The mere fact that the government has acted unconstitutionally does not necessarily result in the violation of an individual’s constitutional rights, even when that individual has been injured.
Consider, for example, a law that authorized police to stop motorists arbitrarily to check their licenses and registration. That law would violate the Fourth Amendment. See Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U. S. 648, 661 (1979).
And motorists who were not stopped might suffer an injury from the unconstitutional policy; for example, they might face significant traffic delays. But these motorists would not have a §1983 claim simply because they were injured pursuant to an unconstitutional policy.
This is because they have not suffered the right kind of injury. They must allege, instead, that their injury amounted to a violation of their constitutional right against unreasonable seizures—that is, by being unconstitutionally detained.
Here too, Heffernan must allege more than an injury from an unconstitutional policy. He must establish that this policy infringed his constitutional rights to speak freely and peaceably assemble. Even if the majority is correct that demoting Heffernan for a politically motivated reason was beyond the scope of the City’s power, the City never invaded Heffernan’s right to speak or assemble.”
What do you think?