A Virginia district court recently held that an employee’s clicking of the Facebook “like” button is not comparable to speech. Accordingly, the court affirmed the dismissal of First Amendment retaliation claims brought by employees of a Virginia sheriff’s office finding that the employees’ action was insufficient to merit constitutional protection.
Sheriff B.J. Roberts of the Hampton, Virginia Sheriff’s Office was up for re-election in 2009. Employees within the sheriff’s office alleged that Sheriff Roberts learned that the employees were supporting his opponent when the employees “liked” the opponent's Facebook page. After he was re-elected, Sheriff Roberts terminated the employees allegedly due to staff reductions and performance issues.
The employees sued Sheriff Roberts alleging that he violated their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association when he unlawfully fired them for actively supporting his political opponent.
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia rejected the employees' claims because the employees failed to allege that they had engaged in protected expressive speech when they “liked” the opponent's Facebook page. The court explained that without existing speech warranting First Amendment protection, the employees could not prove a violation of the right to freedom of speech occurred. The court held 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 within the record.”
While this case may be helpful in the context of public employees, private employers must still be conscious of several issues including: how they obtain social media information about their employees; potential NLRB issues if an employee’s “likes” could be considered protected concerted activity; and potential state constitutional protections of an employee's right to privacy.