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.
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.