A federal court judge presiding over a Virginia lawsuit has ruled that “Liking” a Facebook page is not speech protected by the First Amendment.  The Court rejected claims made by public employees who were fired for apparently “Liking” a political candidate, ruling that they have no valid retaliation/wrongful termination claims on First Amendment grounds and dismissing their claims.    

The dispute arose after six people working for Sheriff B.J. Roberts of the City of Hampton, Virginia, allegedly supported the Sheriff’s political opponent, Jim Adams, in the 2009 election by attending a cook-out and “Liking” Adams’ Facebook page. After Roberts won the election, he fired the workers.  The workers sued, saying their First Amendment rights were violated and that Sheriff Roberts had retaliated against them for exercising their constitutionally-protected rights to free speech.

B.J. Roberts, courtesy of City of Hampton Sheriff’s Dep’t Website

In the lawsuit, Sheriff Roberts asked the Court to rule in his favor on the employees’ claims via summary judgment, which is judgment based on written briefing submitted by the parties, not a full-fledged trial.  The Court ruled in his favor and dismissed all of the employees’ claims, citing several reasons, including immunity on the part of the Sheriff.  In the portion of its opinion addressing the First Amendment issues, however, the Court  concluded that “merely ‘liking’ a Facebook page is insufficient speech to merit constitutional protection.”

The Court’s opinion appears to have left many wondering how “Liking” a Facebook page could not be considered speech, especially if it involved “Liking” a politician during an election season.  That sort of expression seems to be classic political speech well within the protection of the First Amendment.