[Ed. – Hard cases, they say, make bad law. This is a tough one.]
[Police officer Jeffrey] Heffernan didn’t support either side in the mayor’s race and was not even eligible to vote in the election because he lived in another town.
After her yard sign was stolen, Heffernan’s bedridden mother asked him to pick up another sign supporting Lawrence Spagnola, the former police chief who was running for mayor of Paterson against the incumbent mayor, Jose Torres, in 2006. While he was off duty, Heffernan picked up a sign from Spagnola’s campaign staff and put it in his mother’s yard. One of the members of the current mayor’s security staff happened to see Heffernan picking up the sign at the campaign headquarters and informed Police Chief James Wittig, who supported Torres.
The next day, Heffernan was demoted from detective to patrol officer, and his supervisor told him it was because he supported Spagnola. Heffernan filed a lawsuit in federal court against the City of Paterson, Mayor Torres, and Police Chief Wittig for violating his free speech and associational rights. The district court ruled that Heffernan could not sue based on his employer’s mistaken perception of his speech, and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. Now Heffernan brings his case to the Supreme Court. …
What makes this case “bizarre,” as Justice Antonin Scalia said in his questioning during oral arguments, is that Heffernan was demoted based on his employer’s mistaken perception—the mayor and the chief of police thought Heffernan was campaigning for the mayor’s challenger when he wasn’t.