The First Amendment: Does the Government’s Intent Matter?

Author: Brooke Logsdon, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

The Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments on the political speech case, Heffernan v. City of Paterson.[1] The case involved Officer Heffernan, who was demoted from his position as a detective because his department believed that he was supporting the adverse mayoral candidate.[2] More specifically, Officer Heffernan was observed acquiring a lawn sign for his ill mother, who supported Mr. Spagnola, a candidate trying to unseat the incumbent mayor.[3] The city demoted him because of his “overt involvement in a political election.”[4] Officer Heffernan maintains that he only picked up the sign for his mother and was not in any way involved in the political campaign.[5] He sued based on unconstitutional retaliation under the First Amendment,[6] alleging a violation of his freedom of speech and freedom of association rights.[7] Since the City intended to infringe on the political beliefs of Officer Heffernan, the Officer’s Constitutional rights were violated.

The Third Circuit and SCOTUS: Does Government Intent Really Matter?

The central issue in Heffernan is whether the intent of the government matters in a First Amendment case. In other words, does it matter that the government intended to deprive someone of their First Amendment rights, even though no speech took place? For example, if a government entity were to fire an employee for praying—a clear violation of the free exercise clause—when in fact the employee was not actually praying, but only thinking to himself, does the firing still result in a violation of the First Amendment?

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s order of summary judgment, rejecting Officer Heffernan’s claims.[8] In evaluating his free speech claim, the court took issue with whether a jury could find that Heffernan actually spoke on a matter of public concern.[9] If he engaged in political speech, his speech would be protected under the First Amendment. The court evaluated whether Heffernan intended to communicate his political beliefs by picking up the sign. The court doubted this element because Heffernan repeatedly denied having any political involvement at all.[10] He also stated that he was only picking up a sign for his mother and that was all.[11] Therefore, according to the Third Circuit, Heffernan did not speak on a matter of public concern.

The court also rejected Heffernan’s freedom of association claim on the ground that Heffernan did not “maintain[] an affiliation with a political party.”[12] Heffernan argued that because he passively supported Mr. Spagnola and was close friends with him, a “political affiliation” existed.[13] Rejecting that argument, the court found that any political affiliation that might have occurred was mere cursory contact necessary to pick up the sign.[14] Therefore, no reasonable jury could conclude that Heffernan actually exercised his right to freedom of association.[15]

The Supreme Court is presently divided on the issue of government intent for purposes of First Amendment violations. At oral argument in front of the Supreme Court, Justice Kagan stated that if the Court dismissed Officer Heffernan’s claims, it would be permitting the government to punish someone that does not share its views any time that person is not actively opposed to those views.[16] For instance, those individuals who actively engage in political discourse would continue to be protected under the First Amendment, but the apathetic or partially-involved individuals would not. Here, Officer Heffernan, while he had political views, was not actively asserting those views. Therefore, the First Amendment would not protect him because the intent of the government does not matter, only the action of the citizen matters.

The Justices were clearly divided on whether Officer Heffernan actually associated with or spoke on a public matter.[17] Justice Scalia argued that although he was fired for the wrong reason, “there is no constitutional right not to be fired for the wrong reason.”[18] Moreover, Officer Heffernan was not associating or speaking.[19] In contrast, Justice Kagan argued that regardless of whether Heffernan was associating or speaking, his intent does not matter.[20] The First Amendment prohibits the government from retaliating against citizens for having views different from the government.[21] Therefore, the government’s intent is the critical inquiry.

Government Intent Should Be a Touchstone for First Amendment Rights

The Third Circuit gave little credence to Officer Heffernan’s rights under the First Amendment. Just because Heffernan did not actively assert his political opinion does not mean that he is not protected. The purpose of the First Amendment is to protect citizens from the government. Citizens lack adequate protection if they must act in certain ways in order to receive full protection. The government’s intent matters when the First Amendment is implicated. Although Officer Heffernan may have not asserted his First Amendment right, he was still punished by the government for having an unpopular political view. Even though he did not actually have that view, he was still harmed and his First Amendment rights were still implicated. Therefore, the Supreme Court should embrace Justice Kagan’s rationale and uphold the Constitutional rights of Officer Heffernan.

First Amendment Rights: Active Assertion or Implicit Fundamental Right

It is counterintuitive to allow a government to punish a person based on that person’s views, so long as that person is not actively asserting his views. Such a notion cuts against the fundamental idea behind the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. Certain inalienable rights, like life and liberty, are conveyed upon individual citizens at birth and these rights are in constant effect, existing continuously. Making individual liberties contingent on their active assertion diminishes their fundamental importance and meaning.

To determine if the government violated Officer Heffernan’s rights, the Court should evaluate whether the government punished him because he held opposing political views. Here, the government punished Heffernan because he was perceived as having opposing political views. Whether Heffernan actually attempted to politically express or associate himself by picking up the sign is of no consequence; the government’s sole intent was to punish him for having his opposing political views.

Underlying the First Amendment protections is the notion that the government cannot pass rules or act in such a way that infringes someone’s ability to hold certain political views. The First Amendment begins with, “Congress shall make no law . . . .”[22] If Officer Heffernan’s claims are dismissed, the Supreme Court will effectively establish a judicial rule that allows for the government to punish citizens for views that are different than its own. Ultimately, the right of freedom of speech and association is also a right against government action that adversely affects such rights, and the government action in this case did just that.

Does Intent Matter in Freedom of Association?

Although the Third Circuit seemed to give a lackluster analysis when evaluating Officer Heffernan’s freedom of association claim, and Justice Scalia seemed to write off the idea that he was associating at all, the freedom of association protects Officer Heffernan in this case. Even though Officer Heffernan disavowed any intention of supporting the candidate by picking up the sign, he was still associating with the campaign. The mere act of picking up the sign connected him to Mr. Spagnola’s political campaign and ideas.

 That Officer Heffernan did not have the intention to support the candidate when picking up the sign does not mean he did not associate with the campaign. His very presence means that he was in the literal sense, associating. In addition, the fact that the government actually punished him for doing so, regardless of his protests, suggests that his intention did not matter either. That he was seen with the candidate’s sign was enough to fire him for “overt involvement with a political campaign.” In effect, the Third Circuit’s holding protects only those people actively involved in asserting their First Amendment rights. Such a rule of law cuts against the Constitution’s fundamental ideals.

Conclusion

The government abridged Officer Heffernan’s First Amendment rights. Although he had no political intent in his mind, he still associated with the political campaign while he picked up the sign for his mother. The Constitution should protect him from the government’s retaliatory action regardless of his intentions because the government sought to punish him for having opposing political views. If Officer Heffernan’s claims are dismissed, apathetic citizens throughout the country could have their First Amendment rights taken away because they do not actively assert their political views. Allowing the government to get away with reprehensible behavior simply because Officer Heffernan’s involvement was passive does not honor the spirit of the First Amendment’s protections. It also severely limits the scope of the First Amendment, a tool used to prohibit the government from engaging in certain types of behavior. The Supreme Court should depart from the Third Circuit’s reasoning and protect the First Amendment rights.

[1] Heffernan v. City of Paterson, SCOTUS Blog, (Feb. 12, 2016), available at http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/heffernan-v-paterson/.

[2] 777 F.3d 147, 149 (3rd Cir. 2015).

[3] Id at 150.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8]Id. at 149.

[9]Id. at 152-153.

[10] Id.

[11] Id. at 153.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Transcript of Oral Argument, at 58 Heffernan v. City of Paterson, No. 14-1280 (U.S. argued Jan. 19, 2016).

[17] See Oral Argument generally.

[18] Oral Argument at 6.

[19] Oral Argument at 5.

[20] See Oral Argument at 46.

[21] Oral Argument at 58.

[22] U.S. Const. amend. I

Lack of Consideration Could Lead to Lack of Protection

Author: Brynn Stylinski, Contributing Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

Discrimination and equal pay have been brought back into the public eye through recent celebrity revelations of huge disparities between the salaries of actors and actresses and the boycott of the Oscars by several stars. These issues have long been a part of our society, however, and courts have attempted to navigate protective legislation such as Title VII in many different ways over the years. Earlier this year, the Seventh Circuit addressed the case of a Mexican-American woman who believed Continue reading “Lack of Consideration Could Lead to Lack of Protection”

Daily Fantasy Sports: Game Of Skill Or Game of Chance?

Author: Gabriel Fletcher, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

Draftkings and FanDuel are online daily fantasy sports businesses (DFS).[1] In November of 2015, New York Attorney General (AG), Eric Schneiderman, declared that DFS is gambling, and thus unlawful.[2] The AG’s determination has reignited the discussion over DFS being a game of chance as opposed to a game of skill, which is a determining factor in whether or not DFS constitutes gambling. Continue reading “Daily Fantasy Sports: Game Of Skill Or Game of Chance?”

Ohio Clarifies: Law Enforcement Cannot Conduct Unjustified Search of Vehicle Subsequent to a Recent Occupant’s Arrest   

Author: Maxel Moreland, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

Under the Fourth Amendment, absent an impartial and neutral judge or magistrate, warrantless searches are unconstitutional, subject to only a few exceptions.[1] Leak examined two such exceptions—a search incident to a lawful arrest and inventory searches done pursuant to law enforcement’s community-caretaking function. Continue reading “Ohio Clarifies: Law Enforcement Cannot Conduct Unjustified Search of Vehicle Subsequent to a Recent Occupant’s Arrest   “

Concerted Activity in Social Media: The Future of Labor Activity

Author: Brynn Stylinski, Contributing Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

In today’s world of social media, employee interactions regarding their employers are becoming increasingly more public. Conversations that previously would have taken place in a private home or around the water cooler now take place online and may take many different shapes. Instead of a simple exchange of words, an interaction regarding one’s employer might include a re-tweet, a “like,” or a share. This poses a problem for those who must evaluate whether such activity is protected under the terms of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) Continue reading “Concerted Activity in Social Media: The Future of Labor Activity”

Per Se Ban On Eyewitness Expert Testimony in Louisiana: Why the Court Should Grant Certiorari

Author: Gabriel Fletcher, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

On November 2, 2015, the United States Supreme Court denied certiorari to Darrill Henry in a Louisiana case concerning eyewitness expert testimony.[1] Louisiana has a per se ban on eyewitness expert testimony.[2] Eyewitness testimony is a key component of our criminal justice system; however, a per se ban on eyewitness expert testimony is bad public policy. To reduce the rate of wrongful convictions, experts should have the opportunity to explain to jurors the pitfalls of eyewitness testimony. Continue reading “Per Se Ban On Eyewitness Expert Testimony in Louisiana: Why the Court Should Grant Certiorari”

To Employ(ee) or Not to Employ(ee): Are Uber Drivers Employees or Independent Contractors?

Author: Gabriel Fletcher, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

Uber drivers in the state of California are challenging Uber Technologies, Inc. (Uber) in a class action suit, arguing that they should be classified as employees instead of independent contractors.[1] The classification of Uber’s drivers will dictate the drivers’ rights and eligibility for employment related benefits. Continue reading “To Employ(ee) or Not to Employ(ee): Are Uber Drivers Employees or Independent Contractors?”

Tinker Extended: Students’ Protection or School Tyranny?

Author: Brooke Logsdon, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

Taylor Bell, a high school senior, created a rap song regarding allegations that coaches sexually harassed Bell’s classmates.[1] Hoping to raise awareness to the issue, Bell posted his rap on Facebook, where it made its way to the school community.[2] The rap identified the coaches, and contained the lyric, “You fucking with the wrong one, going to get a pistol down your mouth.”[3] Upon hearing about the rap, the school district suspended Bell for threatening a teacher—a “severe disruption” under school policy.[4] After a disciplinary hearing, the school suspended Bell for seven days and placed him in an alternative school for the remainder of the grading period.[5]

The issue is whether a school violates constitutional rights to freedom of speech Continue reading “Tinker Extended: Students’ Protection or School Tyranny?”

 Deflated Again: The Court Got It Wrong in “Deflategate”

Author: Gabriel Fletcher, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

Under the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) of 2011, the National Football League (NFL) Commissioner, Roger Goodell, has the power to punish players for conduct detrimental to the integrity of the game of professional football. The NFL accused Tom Brady, the quarterback of the New England Patriots, of being generally aware that his team’s equipment staff engaged in deflating footballs below the NFL’s specified football inflation range. The deflated footballs were said to give Brady and the Patriots a competitive advantage because deflated footballs are “easier to catch, grip, and throw;” particularly in inclement weather.[1] Continue reading ” Deflated Again: The Court Got It Wrong in “Deflategate””

Limits on Judicial Elections: A Thing of the Past?

Author: Andrea Flaute, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

From basic speech restrictions to an outright prohibition on personally solicited campaign funds, judicial candidates, prior to the decisions in Republican Party of Minnesota v. White and Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, lacked the basic leeway given to every other candidate to control their campaign.[1] In the wake of White, candidates in judicial elections are now permitted to speak freely about disputed legal and political issues.[2] However, the Supreme Court decision in Williams-Yulee maintained that those same judicial candidates are still barred from personally soliciting campaign funding.[3] Continue reading “Limits on Judicial Elections: A Thing of the Past?”