When Jeffrey Heffernan, a police officer in Paterson, New Jersey, was spotted with a campaign sign for his mayor's political challenger, he was quickly demoted, as punishment for his "overt involvement" in the opponent's campaign. Heffernan sued, arguing that the demotion violated his First Amendment rights. And he would have had a fairly straight-forward case, except for one complication. Heffernan hadn't been involved in the opponent's campaign. Not at all. He'd just been picking up a sign for his bedridden mother.
Could he sue for a violation of a constitutional right he hadn't actually exercised? Yes, the Supreme Court ruled today, finding that employees who have been punished in order to prevent them from engaging in protected political activity can sue, even when the employer's actions were based on a mistaken understanding of the employee's behavior.