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Supreme Court backs cop demoted over city politics

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in Employment Law

The free-speech rights of government employees got a boost April 25 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-2 that it’s illegal to demote or fire a public servant for supporting a particular politician.

The court ruled in favor of a Paterson, N.J., detective, Jeffrey Heffernan, who was demoted to patrol officer when the police chief learned he had picked up a campaign sign from the headquarters of a candidate running to unseat the current mayor. The chief said supporting the mayor’s opponent warranted discipline.

The kicker: There was no evidence that Heffernan supported the candidate. He was only picking up the sign as a favor to his mother, who wanted to post it in her yard.

Heffernan sued, claiming the demotion violated his First Amendment rights. Lower courts said merely carrying a sign wasn’t protected speech, especially since the sign didn’t reflect Heffernan’s own political sentiments.

The Supreme Court disagreed, stating that the employer’s intent—to prevent protected political activity by punishing an employee—meant the First Amendment did apply. (Heffernan v. City of Paterson, No. 14–1280, U.S. Supreme Court, 2016)

Note: This case only affects public employers. However, it’s a timely reminder in an election year that political discord can roil the workplace.

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