It’s generally a good idea to avoid saying any negative things about the company/people you work for, but what if you work for the government? The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was designed to promote the open and free discussion of politics and public figures, and that includes public workers who are employed by the government. This means employers are not allowed to retaliate against workers who express a political opinion.
This issue was recently brought before the U.S. Supreme Court over an allegedly illegal demotion. As it turns out, it was all a big misunderstanding, but the mistake had a very real effect for Jeffrey J. Heffernan, who worked as a police detective in Paterson, NJ. Heffernan’s bedridden mother had asked him to pick up a sign for Lawrence Spagnola, a candidate for mayor. Heffernan said he had not taken any position with regard to the candidate, but when he was carrying the sign for his mother, it looked as though Heffernan was making a political statement and endorsing Spagnola. As a direct result of his supervisor’s understanding of the situation, Heffernan was demoted to patrol officer.
The misunderstanding makes the first amendment case even more complicated than most first amendment cases. Heffernan sued his employer over his demotion, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled against him. According to the appellate court, Heffernan’s right to free speech could not have been violated if he had not actually been exercising his right to free speech.
Heffernan appealed the decision and the case went before the U.S. Supreme Court, which issued a 6-2 ruling in Heffernan’s favor. In the written decision, Justice Stephen Breyer said the government’s decision to demote Heffernan was at the heart of the case, regardless of what Heffernan’s actions truly were.
Even the experts have a hard time agreeing on which issue should be the focus of Heffernan’s case: the fact that he was demoted or the misunderstanding regarding the assumptions made when he was seen with Spagnola’s sign? Justice Thomas and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. believe the constitution can do nothing to protect a man who was demoted for something he did if he was not exercising his constitutional rights at the time. In their dissenting opinion, Justice Thomas wrote that it is callous to demote a man for something he did when he was helping his mother, but it is not unconstitutional.
The six judges in the majority disagreed, saying it is the harm done by the demotion that is unconstitutional, regardless of the factual events leading up to the demotion. Therefore, they argued, Heffernan was right to sue his employer for illegally demoting him, whether he was making a political statement or not.
As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision, the case has been remanded back to the lower courts, which will examine evidence to determine if there may have been other, legal grounds for the government to demote Heffernan. If the lower courts can find a legal reason for the demotion, the defendant in this particular first amendment case might be able to escape without having to pay any fines or damages to the plaintiff.
Our Oak Brook employment and wrongful termination have prosecuted claims for high level executives and government workers who have been wrongfully terminated or terminated for exercising their First Amendment right. A case which our firm is prosecuting for College of DuPage officials has received extensive press coverage. You can view that article by clicking here.
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