Supreme Court Decides on Vexing NJ Free Speech Case

Scales of justice
Scales of justice, Photo: ImageDB/iStock/Thinkstock

Police officer Jeffrey Heffernan of Paterson, New Jersey, was called by his mother one day to ask if he could pick up a political campaign sign for her. She doesn’t get out of the house.

The sign was for the mayoral race in that town. Heffernan’s mother supported the challenger, Larry Spagnola—not incumbent Joey Torres—and she’d had that sign out front of her house until somebody took it. Heffernan said sure, he would pick up a new sign while he was off duty. He’d bring it to her.

Soon after, Heffernan was demoted to patrol officer, which included a reduction in wages. Heffernan had been seen with the sign for Spagnola. That’s what he got for being disloyal to Torres, Heffernan thought.

Heffernan sued, saying his First Amendment rights were being violated.

A lower court decided in favor of Heffernan and awarded him more than $100,000, but the City of Paterson appealed. Their argument was that yes, government employees must have their First Amendment rights protected, but this was not a First Amendment matter. Heffernan was actually not a supporter of Spagnola, the argument said. He was only carrying the sign back to his mother’s house as a favor. Therefore, since he was not a supporter of the opponent of the mayor, there were no free speech rights violated.

In this appeal, Heffernan’s lawyer, Mark Frost, said it didn’t matter whether Heffernan was a supporter of Spagnola or not. “When a public employee is demoted because his supervisor wrongly believes the employee has taken sides in an election, the supervisor is at fault just as much as he would have been if the employee actually had taken sides. The employee is harmed just as much.”

In the end, the Appeals Court ruled in favor of the City. Now the U. S. Supreme Court has taken on the case. And they seem as confused as anyone else.

USA Today wrote this about the case: “All that stands between New Jersey police officer Jeffrey Heffernan and victory in his lawsuit claiming the City of Paterson violated his right to support a political candidate is that he didn’t support anyone.”

Justice Anthony Scalia weighed in with this: “…there’s no constitutional right not to be fired for the wrong reason.”

The case is nearly 10 years old. Pay the man, I say.

More from Our Sister Sites