Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Could 'Liking' Something on Facebook Get You Fired?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Could 'Liking' Something on Facebook Get You Fired?

Article excerpt

That's what six sheriff's deputies say happened to them after they 'liked' the political opponent of their boss. A district judge ruled that Facebook likes aren't protected speech, but the case is being appealed.

Facebook and the American Civil Liberties Union are challenging a Virginia judge's ruling that determined "liking" certain content on Facebook is not protected speech for public employees.

In April, US District Judge Raymond Jackson in Norfolk, Va., threw out a wrongful termination suit by six former employees of the Hampton Sheriff's Department. They said their firing last year was retaliation for "liking" the political opponent of Hampton Sheriff B.J. Roberts in an election.

Judge Jackson said that, while public employees can speak as citizens about public concerns, meaning it is constitutionally protected speech, the privilege does not extend to symbolic expression - such as clicking a like button to follow a certain cause, person, or group.

"Simply liking a Facebook page is insufficient. It is not the kind of substantive statement that has previously warranted constitutional protection," Jackson wrote in his ruling.

Sheriff Roberts fired the deputies following the election, which he won. According to the appeal brief for the deputies, he had issued a warning before the election that they stay off the Facebook page of his opponent, which they said indicated their firings were linked to their social-media actions. Roberts told the Associated Press that the terminations resulted from poor job performance and that their actions online "hindered the harmony and efficiency of the office."

The six deputies are appealing the court ruling to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. On Monday, the ACLU filed an amicus brief supporting the appeal. That brief describes Jackson's conclusion, distinguishing symbolic action from written postings, as "erroneous."

"Under the district court's reasoning, affixing a bumper sticker to your car, pinning a campaign pin to your shirt, or placing a sign on your lawn would be devoid of meaning absent further information, and therefore not entitled to constitutional protection because of the minimal effort these actions require. All of these acts are, of course, constitutionally protected," the brief reads.

In its own amicus brief, filed Monday, Facebook said Jackson's ruling was "based on an apparent misunderstanding of the way Facebook works" and that the "resulting decision clashes with decades of precedent and bedrock First Amendment principles. …

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