The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that a government employer violates the First Amendment when it demotes an employee for what it perceives as political activity, even if it is mistaken. A government employer cannot punish an employee for participating in political activity protected by the First Amendment.
In 2005, Jeffrey Heffernan was a police officer in Paterson, New Jersey. At that time, the city mayor was running for re-election against Lawrence Spagnola, a personal friend of Heffernan. The Police Chief and Heffernan's direct supervisor had both been appointed by the current mayor.
During the campaign, Heffernan's mother, who was bedridden, asked him to pick up a large Spagnola sign for her to replace one that had been stolen from her yard. Heffernan went to a Spagnola campaign office and picked up the sign. While there, he spoke for a time to Spagnola's campaign staff. Other members of the police force saw him holding the sign and talking to campaign staff.
The next day, Heffernan's supervisors demoted him from detective to patrol officer. They did this to punish Heffernan for what they thought was his overt involvement in Spagnola's campaign. However, he was not actually involved in the campaign. His supervisors had made a factual mistake.
Heffernan then filed a federal lawsuit against the city for violating his First Amendment rights. The city attempted to defeat his lawsuit by pointing to its factual mistake. It argued that because Heffernan was not actually involved in any political activity, it did not violate his constitutional rights.
The Supreme Court ruled in Jefferson v. City of Paterson (2016) that the city's reason for demoting Heffernan is what matters. Even though Heffernan was not actually involved in any political activity, the city could not punish him for what it wrongly believed to be political activity. And Heffernan actually suffered harm because the city demoted him. That was enough to bring a First Amendment lawsuit. Also, allowing the city to escape liability in this case would likely discourage other employees from actually engaging in political activity.
Thus, a government employer cannot punish an employee for what it believes to be the employee's political activity. This is true even if it is mistaken and the employee has not actually engaged in protected First Amendment activity.