A split panel of the Fourth Circuit today reinstated the free speech and free association claims of some sheriff’s deputies in Hampton, Virginia who alleged that they had been fired from their jobs for supporting the incumbent sheriff’s political opponent. Among the issues in the case was whether clicking “Like” on the challenger’s campaign page was speech within the protection of the First Amendment. The district court said no: “merely ‘liking’ a Facebook page is insufficient speech to merit constitutional protection.” But the Fourth Circuit today disagreed. Here is the relevant portion of the Court’s analysis (discussing the claim of one Carter):
Here, Carter visited the Jim Adams’s campaign Facebook page (the “Campaign Page”), which was named “Jim Adams for the Hampton Sheriff,” and he clicked the “like” button on the Campaign Page. When he did so the Campaign Page’s name and a photo of Adams –which an Adams campaign representative had selected as the Page’s icon – were added to Carter’s profile, which all Facebook users could view. On Carter’s profile, the Campaign Page name served as a link to the Campaign Page. Carter’s clicking on the “like” button also caused an announcement that Carter liked the Campaign Page to appear in the news feeds of Carter’s friends. And it caused Carter’s name and his profile photo to be added to the Campaign Page’s “People [Who] Like This” list.
Once one understands the nature of what Carter did by liking the Campaign Page, it becomes apparent that his conduct qualifies as speech. 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. 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. That a user may use a single mouse click to produce that message that he likes the page instead of typing the same message with several individual key strokes is of no constitutional significance.
Aside from the fact that liking the Campaign Page constituted pure speech, it also was symbolic expression. The distribution of the universally understood “thumbs up” symbol in association with Adams’s campaign page, like the actual text that liking the page produced, conveyed that Carter supported Adams’s candidacy. See Spence v. Washington, 418 U.S. 405, 410-11 (1974) (per curiam) (holding that person engaged in expressive conduct when there was “[a]n intent to convey a particularized message . . ., and in the surrounding circumstances the likelihood was great that the message would be understood by those who viewed it”); see also Tobey v. Jones, 706 F.3d 379, 388 n.3 (4th Cir. 2013).
In sum, 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. In this way, it is the Internet equivalent of displaying a political sign in one’s front yard, which the Supreme Court has held is substantive speech. See City of Ladue v. Gilleo, 512 U.S. 43, 54-56 (1994). Just as Carter’s placing an “Adams for Sheriff” sign in his front yard would have conveyed to those passing his home that he supported Adams’s campaign, Carter’s liking Adams’s Campaign Page conveyed that message to those viewing his profile or the Campaign Page.15 In fact, it is hardly surprising that the record reflects that this is exactly how Carter’s action was understood. See J.A. 160 (McCoy’s testimony that in light of Carter’s liking Adams’s Campaign Page, “everybody was saying that . . . Carter is out of there because he supported Adams openly”); see also J.A. 793 (Sheriff’s Office employee stating that Roberts had said that “certain employees were on the Facebook page of his opponent, Jim Adams, indicating their support of Adams for Sheriff”).
All of this sounds just right.
Chief Judge Traxler wrote the opinion for the court in Bland v. Roberts, in which Judge Thacker joined. Judge Hollander (D.Md., sitting by designation) wrote a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. The judges were not split on the liking-as-speech issue but on the application of qualified immunity, a split largely traceable to different views about the scope of the en banc holding in Jenkins v. Medford, 119 F.3d 1156 (4th Cir. 1997) (en banc).