Skip to Content

Supreme Court Rules on First Amendment Protection for Demoted Paterson Police Officer

May 11, 2016 | Written by: Deborah B. Rosenthal, Esq. and Kelly A. Lichtenstein, Esq. |

In Heffernan v. City of Paterson, a recently decided U.S. Supreme Court case, a government official demoted an employee because he believed that the employee supported a particular non-incumbent candidate for mayor. The Court had to decide if the First Amendment prohibited the government from demoting the employee based on the government’s perception that the employee supported the non-incumbent politician. The Supreme Court held that yes, it did.

Jeffrey Heffernan, the petitioner, was a police officer in Paterson, New Jersey.  At that time, the mayor of Paterson, Jose Torres, was running for re-election against Lawrence Spagnola. Torres had appointed both the Chief of Police and Heffernan’s direct supervisor to their positions. Heffernan, on the other hand, was a friend of Spagnola’s.

During the campaign, Heffernan’s mother asked Heffernan to pick up a large Spagnola sign for her front yard. Heffernan picked up the sign and while there, spoke to members of Spagnola’s campaign staff. Other members of the police force saw him, sign in hand, and word quickly spread throughout the police force. The next day, Heffernan’s supervisors demoted him from detective to patrol officer and assigned him a “walking post” as punishment for his “overt involvement” in Spagnola’s campaign.

Heffernan filed a lawsuit in federal court, claiming that the city violated his First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association by demoting him for this perceived political activity.  The District Court found that, since Heffernan claimed he was actually not politically involved in the Spagnola campaign, he had not engaged in any “First Amendment” conduct, and therefore, his employer had not deprived him of any constitutionally protected right. The 3rd Circuit affirmed.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision of the 3rd Circuit. The Court held that when an employer demotes an employee out of a desire to prevent the employee from engaging in protected political activity, the employee is entitled to challenge that action under the First Amendment and Section 1983 (even if the employer’s actions stemmed from a mistaken belief about the employee’s political involvement).

The take-away from this decision for public entities is that, regardless of whether a public employee is actually exercising a First Amendment right, or the public entity mistakenly believes that right is being exercised, an employee may not be retaliated against. 


Deborah B. Rosenthal, Esq. of Gebhardt & Kiefer, PC can provide your company with assistance pertaining to employment law topics. Contact Ms. Rosenthal at 908-735-5161 or via email.