RICHMOND, Virginia (AP) -- A U.S. federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that clicking "Like" on Facebook is constitutionally protected free speech.
The court in Virginia reversed a lower court ruling that said merely "liking" a Facebook page was insufficient speech to merit constitutional protection.
Exactly what a "like" means -- if anything -- played a part in a Virginia case involving six people who say a law enforcement official, Sheriff B.J. Roberts, fired them for supporting an opponent in his 2009 re-election bid, which he won. The workers sued, saying their rights to free speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution were violated.
Roberts said some of the workers were let go because he wanted to replace them with sworn deputies while others were fired because of poor performance or his belief that their actions "hindered the harmony and efficiency of the office." One of those workers, Daniel Ray Carter, had "liked" the Facebook page of Roberts' opponent, Jim Adams.
U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson had ruled in April 2012 that while public employees are allowed to speak as citizens on matters of public concern, clicking the ``like'' button does not amount to expressive speech. In other words, it's not the same as actually writing out a message and posting it on the site.
Jackson acknowledged that other courts have ruled that Facebook posts are constitutionally protected speech, but he said in those cases there were "actual statements." Simply clicking a button is much different and doesn't warrant First Amendment protection, he wrote. In his ruling, Jackson acknowledged the need to weigh whether the employee's speech was a substantial factor in being fired. But the judge wrote that the point is moot if "liking" something isn't constitutionally protected speech.
The three-judge appeals court panel disagreed, ruling that ``liking a political candidate's campaign page communicates the user's approval of the candidate and supports the campaign by associating the user with it. The case was sent back to the lower court.
Facebook and the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed friend of court briefs in the case, applauded Wednesday's ruling.
An attorney representing Roberts, the sheriff, did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment, nor did an attorney representing the employees.
Michael Felberbaum can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/MLFelberbaum