By Heather Kelly
(CNN) — A U.S. court of appeals gave Facebook a thumbs up on Wednesday when it ruled that “likes” on the social network are protected as free speech under the Constitution.
In 2009, six employees at the Hampton Sheriff’s Office in Virginia lost their jobs after expressing support for their boss’ opponent in an upcoming election for sheriff, some by liking and commenting on the opponent’s Facebook page.
U.S. Circuit Judge William Traxler found that “liking” something on the social network was the “Internet equivalent of displaying a political sign in one’s front yard,” an act the Supreme Court has already ruled as protected speech.
The decision from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, was a reversal of an earlier ruling on the case, in which District Judge Raymond Jackson said liking a Facebook page was “insufficient speech to merit constitutional protection.”
Other courts have ruled that posts on the social network are protected as free speech, but Jackson differentiated between making full statements and just clicking a button to like something.
Two of the employees, Deputy Daniel Carter and Robert McCoy, claimed they were fired by Sheriff B.J. Roberts specifically for liking a Facebook profile for Roberts’ opponent, Jim Adams. The two also posted messages showing their support on Adam’s Facebook page.
Eventually, McCoy said he removed his post on Facebook after co-workers asked him why he’d risked his job so close to retirement.
Roberts allegedly confronted Carter and said, “You made your bed, and now you’re going to lie in it — after the election, you’re gone.”
When Roberts won his bid for re-election, he did not reinstate a number of employees, including Carter.
Facebook and the American Civil Liberties Union became involved with the case, both filing friend of the court briefs for the case.
“The Constitution doesn’t distinguish between ‘liking’ a candidate on Facebook and supporting him in a town meeting or public rally,” the ACLU’s Ben Wizner said in a statement.
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