(CN) – “Liking” a Facebook page does not qualify for First Amendment protection, a federal judge ruled, dismissing claims that a Virginia sheriff improperly monitored the virtual support of six employees.
As November 2009 elections loomed. B.J. Roberts, the sheriff of Hampton, Va., allegedly learned that six of his employees were actively supporting one of his opponents in the election, Jim Adams. Several employees had recently expressed their support for Adams by clicking the “like” function on Adams’ Facebook page and by attending a barbeque fundraiser.
Roberts then called a department meeting in which he advised the staff to get on the “long train” which him, rather than ride the “short train” with Adams, according to the six employees’ complaint.
After Roberts won re-election, he fired several employees, including three civilian workers and three uniformed deputy sheriffs who supported Adams.
Bobby Bland, Daniel Carter, David Dixon, Robert McCoy, John Sandhofer and Debra Woodward sued Roberts in the Eastern District of Virginia for violating their First Amendment rights.
In a motion for summary judgment against the complaint, Roberts explained that he wanted to replace the three fired civilian employees with sworn deputies, and that the three fired deputies “hindered the harmony and efficiency of the office.”
U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson ruled last week that “liking” a Facebook page does not qualify as protected speech.
“The sheriff’s knowledge of the posts only becomes relevant if the court finds the activity of liking a Facebook page to be constitutionally protected,” Jackson wrote. “It is the court’s conclusion that merely ‘liking’ a Facebook page is insufficient speech to merit constitutional protection. In cases where courts have found that constitutional speech protections extended to Facebook posts, actual statements existed in the record.”
“Simply liking a Facebook page is insufficient,” he added. “It is not the kind of substantive statement that has previously warranted constitutional protection. The court will not attempt to infer the actual content of Carter’s posts from one click of a button on Adams’ Facebook page.”
Jackson also found that Roberts is entitled to qualified immunity, even if the plaintiffs had made statements supporting Adams on Facebook.
“In a case where the plaintiffs have asked the court itself to engage in extensive guesswork, an objectively reasonable official in the sheriff’s position cannot be expected to engage in that same calculus,” he said. “A balancing which has been difficult for multiple courts to engage is difficult more so for a sheriff attempting to ensure his actions do not impede upon the constitutional rights of his employees.”
“Taking the facts in the light more favorable to the plaintiffs, Sheriff Roberts is entitled to qualified immunity,” the court concluded.