Is a Facebook “Like” Not “Substantive” Enough to “Warrant[] Constitutional Protection”?

So holds Bland v. Roberts (E.D. Va. Apr. 24, 2012). Plaintiffs were fired from the Hampton, Virginia Sheriff’s Office, and they claim that this was because they backed the Sheriff’s opponent in an election, Jim Adams. In particular, two of the plaintiffs, Carter and McCoy, claim that they were fired for “liking” Adams’ page on Facebook.

Firing a government employee based on his speech on matters of public concern is generally unconstitutional. There are exceptions, for instance for speech by a high-level employee whose political affiliation is relevant to the job (such as the Sheriff’s top lieutenant), for speech that’s part of one’s job duties, or for speech that sufficiently disrupts the functioning of the office. But while the judge suggested that some of these exceptions might apply, he did not primarily rely on those exceptions.

Rather, the judge’s primary basis for his decision was that the firings couldn’t violate the First Amendment, because Facebook “likes” just didn’t qualify as potentially expressive for First Amendment purposes:

[Past First Amendment precedents] differ markedly from the case at hand in one crucial way: Both [precedents] involved actual statements. No such statements exist in this case. Simply liking a Facebook page is insufficient. 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. For the Court to assume that the Plaintiffs made some specific statement without evidence of such statements is improper. Facebook posts can be considered matters of public concern; however, the Court does not believe Plaintiffs Carter and McCoy have alleged sufficient speech to garner First Amendment protection.

That’s not right: A Facebook “like” is a means of conveying a message of support for the thing you’re liking. That’s the whole point of the “like” button; that’s what people intend by clicking “like,” and that’s what viewers will perceive. Moreover, the allegation is that the employees were fired precisely because the Sheriff disapproved of the message the “like” conveyed. I would treat “liking” as verbal expression — though it takes just one mouse-click, it publishes to the world text that says that you like something. But even if it’s just treated as symbolic expression, it is still constitutionally protected, as cases such as Texas v. Johnson (1989) (the flag-burning case) show.

To be sure, the message isn’t highly detailed; it doesn’t explain why one is supporting the “liked” person or cause. But the First Amendment protects speech even when the speech is not rich with logical argument, or is even vague or ambiguous. “[T]he First Amendment shields such acts as saluting a flag (and refusing to do so), wearing an armband to protest a war, displaying a red flag, and even ‘[m]arching, walking or parading’ in uniforms displaying the swastika. As some of these examples show, a narrow, succinctly articulable message is not a condition of constitutional protection ….”

Putting a “Jim Adams” bumper sticker on one’s car would be constitutionally protected. Putting such a sign on one’s lawn would be constitutionally protected. “Liking” Jim Adams on Facebook is equally constitutionally protected. If the plaintiffs appeal, I expect the Fourth Circuit will reverse the district court on this point. (Thanks to James Ayden and Venkat Balasubramani and Eric Goldman (Ars Technica) for the pointer.)