“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 4th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote. “In this way, it is the Internet equivalent of displaying a political sign in one’s front yard.”
The ruling partially reversed a decision of U.S. District Court Judge Raymond Jackson in the Eastern District of Virginia, who opined that a Facebook “like” wasn't really speech, on the theory that people can “like” things on Facebook without making “an actual statement.” Jackson added that “merely 'liking' a Facebook page is insufficient speech to merit constitutional protection.”
The decision stemmed from a contested 2009 election for sheriff of Hampton, Va. Several employees supported a challenger to B.J. Roberts, the incumbent sheriff. The challenger lost. Soon after Roberts was reelected, he fired six people who hadn't supported him, including at least one person who “liked” the challenger's Facebook page.
That group filed suit, arguing that Roberts violated their free speech rights by retaliating against them for their political opinions. Unlike private corporations, government agencies have to respect employees' free-speech rights -- though only to the extent that their speech doesn't interfere with work.
Jackson ruled against the employees, who appealed to the 4th Circuit.
That court partially reversed, ruling that some of the employees might be entitled to reinstatement. More importantly, the appellate court made clear that Jackson's ideas about speech on Facebook don't reflect the law of the land.
“On the most basic level, clicking on the 'like' button literally causes to be published the statement that the User “likes” something, which is itself a substantive statement,” the appeals judges wrote. “In the context of a political campaign’s Facebook page, the meaning that the user approves of the candidacy whose page is being liked is unmistakable.”