Jeffrey Heffernan’s supervisor thought Heffernan was involved in his opponent’s political campaign, but actually Heffernan was politically neutral. The boss demoted Heffernan. When Heffernan sued, the lower courts turned him away because there had been no actual denial of his free speech rights – only a perceived denial. The US Supreme Court (6-8) reversed, saying:
We conclude that * * * the government’s reason for demoting Heffernan is what counts here. When an employer demotes an employee out of a desire to prevent the employee from engaging in political activity that the First Amendment protects, the employee is entitled to challenge that unlawful action under the First Amendment and 42 U. S. C. §1983—even if, as here, the employer makes a factual mistake about the employee’s behavior.
Heffernan v. City of Patterson (US Supreme Court 04/26/2016)
But wait. The City might still win this one. The Court ends its opinion with this life ring:
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. See Brief for United States as Amicus Curiae 27–28. Whether that policy existed, whether Heffernan’s supervisors were indeed following it, and whether it complies with constitutional standards, see Civil Service Comm’n, 413 U. S., at 564, are all matters for the lower courts to decide in the first instance.
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