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The First Amendment generally prohibits government officials from dismissing or demoting an employee because of the employee's engagement in constitutionally protected political activity.
Petitioner Heffernan was a police officer working in the office of the chief of police for Paterson, New Jersey. Both the chief of police and Heffernan's supervisor had been appointed by Paterson's incumbent mayor, who was running for re-election against Lawrence Spagnola, a good friend of Heffernan's. Heffernan was not involved in Spagnola's campaign in any capacity. As a favor to his bedridden mother, Heffernan agreed to pick up and deliver to her a Spagnola campaign yard sign. Other police officers observed Heffernan speaking to staff at a Spagnola distribution point while holding the yard sign. Word quickly spread throughout the force. The next day, Heffernan's supervisors demoted him from detective to patrol officer as punishment for his “overt involvement” in Spagnola's campaign. Heffernan filed suit, claiming that the police chief and the other respondents had demoted him because, in their mistaken view, he had engaged in conduct that constituted protected speech. They had thereby “depriv[ed]” him of a “right . . . secured by the Constitution.” 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The District Court, however, found that Heffernan had not been deprived of any constitutionally protected right because he had not engaged in any First Amendment conduct. Affirming, the Third Circuit concluded that Heffernan's claim was actionable under § 1983 only if his employer's action was prompted by Heffernan's actual, rather than his perceived, exercise of his free-speech rights. Heffernan petitioned for further review in the United States Supreme Court.
Was a police officer's demotion by his employer, an unlawful action under the First Amendment preventing the employee from engaging in protected political activity?
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 unlawful action under the First Amendment and § 1983 even if, as here, the employer's actions are based on a factual mistake about the employee's behavior. To answer the question whether an official's factual mistake makes a critical legal difference, the United States Supreme Court assumes that the activities that Heffernan's supervisors mistakenly thought he had engaged in are of a kind that they cannot constitutionally prohibit or punish. Section 1983 does not say whether the “right” protected primarily focuses on the employee's actual activity or on the supervisor's motive.