- Category: Volume 87 (Fall 2015 - Spring 2016)
- Published: 03 February 2016
- Written by KATHARINE DIX | STAFF WRITER
On Jan. 19, former Patterson cop, Jeffery B. Heffernan, plead at the Supreme Court. According to NorthJersey.com, the officer was tried for “overt involvement in a political election.”
In 2006, Officer Heffernan was spotted obtaining a political lawn sign supporting a mayoral candidate, Lawrence Spagnola, who was trying to unseat the current Patterson mayor, Joey Torres, by another Patterson officer. This eventually spread to the chief of police in Patterson, who was a Torres supporter himself. Heffernan was then demoted to foot patrol. As a result, he sued the city for monetary damages.
NorthJersey.com reports that Heffernan retired in 2011, but his case did not end there. The former officer has been consistent in his claim that he was in no way active in the Spagnola campaign, and that he was simply picking up the sign for his mother, who was bedridden.
It is due to him claiming he was not exercising his right to free speech that he appeared in front of the Supreme Court last month. Heffernan had no platform to exercise his first amendment rights, therefore had no reason to sue the city for damages.
Heffernan’s attorney spoke to NorthJersey.com about the case. Attorney Mark B. Frost said, “If a police officer can constitutionally be demoted because his supervisor incorrectly believes that the officer supports a candidate for mayor, then any public employee could be demoted or even fired because her supervisor incorrectly believes that she is a Democrat or a Republican,”
Frost wrote. “Employees would have to worry about everything they say or do at the office, for fear of leaving the boss with the wrong impression.” Frost added that if Heffernan was demoted for supporting the Spagnola campaign, it would have been illegal. So, why was it legal for him to be demoted without supporting any campaign?
Dr. Dooley said, “In terms of one’s employment, free speech cannot be used to denote them because of their view. He’s a government employee, and as a government employee you should have freedom of speech. In the private sector, freedom of speech must be considered because of inflammatory comments and fiscal damages because of it. Radio and T.V. personalities say racist remarks, the company has every right to fire them. But since this is a public person, to be demoted for only to be perceived to have a political view seems inappropriate.”
Lecturer of Political Science, Professor Gregory Bordelon weighed in on the issue. “The central constitutional question before the Supreme Court in this case does not directly involve the substance of either a free speech or free association claim, but more so what level of proof a trial court needs to be able to determine whether a retaliation claim (when using those constitutional protections) is proper.
He continued, “In this case, the officer alleges that the Paterson police force improperly demoted him based only on a perception of the officer’s attempt to exercise a constitutionally protected right (here, possibly free speech in why he bought the sign), but the case law of the Third Circuit (encompassing New Jersey) clearly indicates that the retaliation claim can only be legitimate if there is an adverse employment action (firing, demotion, etc.) based on an actual exercise of constitutional rights, not a simple perception of it. I believe that the Supreme Court has picked up the case to revisit that interpretation by the Third Circuit and will likely decide that lower courts have to take evidence on perception v. actual constitutional rights asserted which may make it harder, in the future, for these types of cases to be decided without a jury trial, making summary judgment dismissals far less likely.”
It is clearly a very complex case; due to Officer Heffernan not exercising free speech, only being perceived as exercising it. Even so, if he did exercise free speech, it would be illegal for him to be demoted due to his beliefs.
Josh Manning, a junior business major planning to go to law school, built off of Dr. Bordelon’s statement. “If what Professor Bordelon is saying is true, he essentially doesn’t have a first amendment claim. As a result, the court is not going to rule on the substance of this issue because his injury is not related to a first amendment issue. Essentially, the courts need to decide under what right the police department had to demote Officer Heffernan, and under what right Heffernan had to sue the city for monetary damages.”