New opinion — the court affirms denial of 1983 retaliation suit, and I scratch my head

When I read the first sentence of the opinion —

Appellant Jeffrey Heffernan, a police officer in Paterson, New Jersey, was demoted after being observed obtaining a local mayoral candidate’s campaign sign at the request of his mother.

— I was sure the court was going to rule in favor of the demoted officer. Poor guy was just getting a sign for bedridden mom. But I was wrong. The court affirmed summary judgment against him because he failed to show that he actually exercised his First Amendment rights. So, the employer can’t fire you for free speech, except that they can fire you for free speech if you weren’t actually engaged in free speech. Wacky, no?

The case is Heffernan v. City of Paterson. Opinion by Vanaskie, joined by Greenberg and Cowen. The case was decided without argument.