The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of a New Jersey police officer who claimed that his employer violated his First Amendment rights. Heffernan v. City of Paterson, 578 U.S. ___ (2016). This case is particularly notable because the underlying action by the plaintiff’s employer was based on a mistake. The employer thought the plaintiff was engaging in a “constitutionally protected political activity,” Heffernan, slip op. at 1, by supporting a political candidate opposed by the police chief. The district court and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the plaintiff on the grounds that, since he was not actually engaging in constitutionally protected speech, his employer could not have deprived him of any constitutional right. The Supreme Court reversed this ruling based on a 1994 case, which held that an employer’s subjective belief is the controlling factor.
The First Amendment’s guarantee of “freedom of speech” means, in part, that the government cannot punish a person for the content of their speech. In an employment law context, this protects public employees like the plaintiff, a police officer. Government employers are generally prohibited from taking adverse action against an employee for acts that are protected by the Bill of Rights. This restriction does not necessarily apply to private employers, since the First Amendment only restrains government actions. Congress enacted a statute in the 19th century giving individuals the right to file suit against a government official for the “deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws” while acting in an official capacity. 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
The plaintiff in Heffernan was a 20-year veteran of the police department in Paterson, New Jersey. He was assigned to work in the police chief’s office in 2005, according to the court’s opinion. The mayor, who had appointed both the chief and the plaintiff’s direct supervisor, was running for reelection at the time. The plaintiff was reportedly “a good friend” of the mayor’s challenger. Heffernan, slip op. at 2.