Thursday, October 10, 2013

Court: "Liking" Sheriff Candidate on Facebook Protected by First Amendment

In Bland v. Roberts (4th Cir., Sept. 18, 2013, 12-1671) 2013 WL 5228033, the federal Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that the act of "liking" a candidate for Sheriff on Facebook by a deputy sheriff is protected speech under the First Amendment. As a result, it is unlawful for a sheriff to retaliated against an employee for "liking" his opponent.

The case started when sheriff’s office employees brought a civil rights action alleging that the sheriff retaliated against them by reappointing them because of their support of his electoral opponent. Two of the employees expressed support for the Sheriff’s opponent by “liking” his Facebook page and posting comments of encouragement for his upcoming election. After the sheriff was reelected, he refused to reappoint the employees to their positions as sheriffs deputies at the jail, a typical process in that jurisdiction.

 They sued, claiming that the sheriff violated their First Amendment rights to free association and free speech. Initially, the District Court sided with the sheriff, finding merely “liking” a Facebook page is insufficient speech to merit constitutional protection, but the Court of Appeals reversed.

The Court of Appeal said when one “likes” a political campaign's Facebook page, the user becomes associated with the campaign. A photo of the user is posted to the campaign’s profile, a link is provided on the users profile that others can use to access with the campaign’s page, and the “thumbs up” icon communicates the user’s support. The Court said the act of “liking” the page is like displaying a political sign in one’s front yard, which the Supreme court has held as substantive speech.