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High court to decide free-speech limits in political-retribution case

The Supreme Court said Thursday it will decide an important question on the rights of the nation’s 22 million public employees: How far do free-speech rights go in protecting a public employee who is demoted or fired over his or her perceived political affiliations?

In the past, the court has said public employees have 1st Amendment rights, including the right to speak out on public issues. But lower courts are split on whether these employees are always protected from political retaliation.

The justices agreed to hear an appeal from a New Jersey police detective who was demoted to walking a beat after he was seen putting into his car a large campaign sign that supported a candidate who was trying to oust the mayor of Paterson.

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The officer, Jeffrey Heffernan, sued the city, the mayor and the police chief, saying the action violated his rights to free speech and freedom of association, but he lost.

A federal judge and the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that he had no such rights because he was not actually exercising his right to free speech by campaigning for the challenger and because he did not live and vote in Paterson.

His appeal, filed with the help of UCLA law professors Stuart Banner and Eugene Volokh, calls that a “strange and frightening rule” that “drastically curtails the 1st Amendment rights of government employees.”

If the lower court is right, they said, “then any public employee can be constitutionally fired because her supervisor incorrectly believes she is a Democrat or a Republican. Employees have to worry about saying the wrong thing at the office, for fearing of leaving the boss with the wrong impression.”

In the New Jersey case, Heffernan said he was a friend of Lawrence Spagnola, a former police chief who was running against the incumbent mayor, Jose Torres, in 2006. But Heffernan said he was not involved in the campaign. He was, however, spotted by one of the mayor’s aides loading a Spagnola campaign sign into his car. Heffernan said he was delivering the sign to his mother, who lived nearby.

The justices met earlier this week to sift through about 2,000 appeal petitions that arrived during the summer. They announced Thursday that they had agreed to hear 13 of them, most involving disputes over business litigation.

These cases, including the case of Heffernan vs. City of Paterson, will likely be set for argument before the court in January.

Twitter: @DavidGSavage


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