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Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Facebook "Like" is First Amendment Speech

Last year about this time, I reported on a case in Virginia where the judge held that clicking "like" on a candidate's Facebook page was not protected speech under the First Amendment.  Bland et al. v. Roberts.  That case involved employees of the local sheriff who supported the sheriff's opponent in the election.  To the employees' misfortune, their supported candidate lost the election, and the sheriff terminated them.  The employees sued, claiming that the sheriff retaliated against them in violation of their First Amendment rights by terminating them for engaging in protected speech activities - in this case, clicking "like" on the candidate's Facebook page.  The district court judge ruled in favor of the sheriff, finding that the mere action of clicking "like" on Facebook was not "speech."  You can read the original blog post on the Municipal Minute blog here.
The employees appealed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit.  That court issued its opinion today reversing the district court and finding that the employees did engage in protected speech activities in their conduct on the sheriff's opponent's Facebook page. Bland v. Roberts (U.S. Court of Appeals, 4th Cir. September 18, 2013). 

First, the court reviewed the Supreme Court political speech retaliation cases in determining which of the employees were protected and which employees were exempt as occupying a "policymaking or confidential position."  Under the Supreme Court's decisions in Elrod v. Burns and Branti v. Finkel, a public employee who has a confidential, policymaking, or public contact role has substantially less First Amendment protection than a lower level employee.  The purpose of the Elrod-Branti test is to ensure loyalty with employees in certain policymaking or confidential positions.  In this case, the court determined that the plaintiff deputy sheriffs were not in policymaking positions where their political allegiance to the sheriff was a job performance requirement. 

Second, the court looked at the conduct of the employees to determine whether their activities (supporting the sheriff's opponent on the opponent's Facebook page) were a substantial motivation for the sheriff's decision not to reappoint the employees.  The court looked at the sheriff's conduct as well, including his statements to employees that those who openly support his opponent would lose their jobs, and specifically referencing his disapproval of the decision of some employees to support his opponent's candidacy on Facebook. 

Third, the court addressed the question whether the employees' activities were speech.  As noted above, the district court had ruled that merely clicking "like" on Facebook was not speech.  The appellate court disagreed with the district court, stating that "clicking on the 'like' button literally causes to be published the statement that the User 'likes' something, which is itself a substantive statement."  (emphasis added).  Particularly in this context, clicking "like" on a candidate's Facebook page sends a message that the user approves the candidacy.  The court found this to be pure political speech, as well as symbolic expression - a "thumbs up" symbol that the user supports the campaign by associating the user with it.  As the court noted, liking a candidate's campaign page "is the Internet equivalent of displaying a political sign in one's front yard." 

Finally, the court addressed the sheriff's argument that he is entitled to qualified immunity for not reappointing the employees.  The court determined that the sheriff is entitled to qualified immunity concerning the claims of the three sworn deputy sheriffs, because a reasonable sheriff could have believed he had a right to choose not to reappoint his sworn deputies for political reasons, including the deputies' support of his opponent.  However, qualified immunity only applies to the employees' money damages claims, not their reinstatement claims.

One justice issued a concurring/dissenting opinion, disagreeing with the majority's ruling applying qualified immunity to the sheriff's actions.  The dissenting justice stated that the sheriff should be held accountable for political retaliation.

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