Should a public sector employer be able to demote an employee for perceived involvement in a political campaign? A recent Supreme Court decision says no.
On April 26, 2016, the Supreme Court decided in favor of police officer Jeffrey Heffernan from the Paterson, N.J., Police Department, who claimed that he was demoted because his bosses mistakenly thought he was campaigning for a mayoral candidate they didn’t like. The court ruled 6 to 2 that if Heffernan’s allegations were true, Heffernan could recover money from the city.
“In Heffernan v. City of Paterson, the Court vindicated a principle that is fundamental to our First Amendment jurisprudence: Government officials may not target speech arbitrarily — that is, on the basis of their mere will, rather than any constitutionally proper reason.”
He also points out that while this ruling is positive, it is telling that the Court does not always carefully assess claims that government officials have acted in an arbitrary manner, and that Heffernan’s due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment were being more clearly violated.
“In truth, the majority and the dissent are both partially correct. If in fact Heffernan was demoted because his superiors believed he was engaging in political speech with which they disagreed, his constitutional rights were violated. But it is the Fourteenth Amendment rather than the First Amendment that is most squarely implicated by the government’s actions.
The Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process of Law Clause is properly understood to prohibit arbitrary government actions — actions that serve only to impose the will of those in power”
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