The First Amendment protects public employees’ right to speak and will bar government officials from dismissing or demoting a public employee because of the employee’s constitutionally protected political activity. Even if a government official mistakenly believes the affected employee was engaging in protected First Amendment activity she can still seek protection from adverse employment action.
Jeffrey Heffernan was employed as detective for the Patterson Police Department, and his direct supervisors were close political allies of the elected mayor who was running for re-election. Heffernan was asked by his mother to go to the campaign headquarters of a one Lawrence Spagnola who was running to unseat the sitting mayor. Other members of the police force saw Heffernan carrying the Spagnola yard sign for his mother and that information reached his supervisors who decided to demote Heffernan from detective to patrol officer for overt involvement in the Spagnola for Mayor campaign. After bringing a federal lawsuit claiming unlawful infringement on his First Amendment freedoms, the Federal District Court and Appeals Court both dismissed his claim declaring that a free speech retaliation claim is only actionable when the adverse employment action was prompted by an employee’s actual rather than perceived exercise of constitutional rights.
The U.S. Supreme Court reversed and in so doing said that when a government “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 the employer makes a factual mistake about the employee’s behavior.”