A legal case involving a veteran NJ police officer — that goes before the US Supreme Court today — could have huge implications for government employees everywhere.
The case examines what a government can do when an employee is associated with political activity. In this case — Jeffrey Heffernan , a 20-year veteran of the Paterson police force, picked up a political sign at the wrong moment.
During the mayoral campaign of 2006, he went to his mother’s yard after someone stole her sign supporting the mayor’s opponent. The officer was seen holding the sign as he chatted with campaign workers, while he went to get his bed-ridden mother a new placard.
Heffernan made it clear afterwards– he was not active in the campaign and couldn’t vote in Paterson because he didn’t live there. He was simply doing his mom a favor.
Despite his efforts to explain that to his bosses, the police chief demoted him and the sitting mayor wanted him out. The police chief stated that he just assumed Heffernan was supporting the other candidate.
It was a huge blow to Heffernan – going from detective on the force to patrol officer. He sued the city, the mayor, and the police chief. A jury awarded him $105,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.
However, a newly assigned judge later threw his case out, saying he was not exercising his right of free speech, so no constitutional right was violated. Heffernan was not campaigning for the opponent. A federal appeals court agreed with the trial judge’s decision and Heffernan appealed to the Supreme Court — where the case will be argued today.
His attorney says the Court should look at the motive– which was to punish him for perceived free speech.
The city’s lawyer argues that the Constitution always requires that you actually be exercising your constitutional right. He adds that Heffernan might have had a legitimate lawsuit under civil rights or state civil service laws, but not under the constitution.
Heffernan’s attorney says if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the city, employees at every level will constantly be looking over their shoulders.. worrying about possible mistaken impressions.
A decision in the case is expected by summer.