A US Circuit Court of Appeals in Newport News Virginia will very soon decide whether a sheriff that fired several of his staff after they “liked” his opponent in an election, is a violation of freedom of speech. The move has come about, the AFP Newswire via Dawn Science-Tech reports, after a District judge ruled that “liking” someone or something on Facebook is not a form of speech and thus doesn’t fall under freedom of speech laws. The Washington Post clearly disagrees, siding with the fired deputies, the ACLU and Facebook itself.
The incident occurred AFP says, after Sheriff B.J. Hampton discovered that several of his deputies had clicked the “like” icon on their Facebook pages for the Sheriff’s opponent in an upcoming election. After the discovery, the sheriff told those who had done it that he was going to fire them after he won the election, which he did. That led to a lawsuit, filed by all seven of the deputies that had been fired, against the sheriff, claiming that he had violated their constitutional rights to freedom of speech. They said their actions were akin to posting a placard in their yard, or affixing a sticker to their bumper, which are both legal forms of free speech. Federal law prohibits the dismissal of public employees for voicing their opinions regarding elections. Unfortunately for the deputies, U.S. District Judge Raymond A. Jackson didn’t agree with their arguments and dismissed the lawsuit, prompting the deputies and their lawyers to take their case to a higher court.
The Washington Post says the case has important implications for those that use the Internet, social media and freedom of speech issues in general. If the Circuit Court doesn’t overturn the decision by the lower court, a precedent could be set that could adversely impact the ability of people to freely express themselves in the very public forum that is the Internet. Of course, that’s only partly true, because if the Circuit Court fails to overturn the decision, the deputies and their lawyers will almost certainly appeal to the Supreme Court, and it’s only if that court either refuses to hear the case, or rejects their arguments that the courts will be setting a precedent.
The ACLU echoes that sentiment, telling the press at a news conference that it’s important that the law keeps step with advances in technology, insinuating that the reason the lower court failed to side with the deputies was because the judge didn’t understand that the Internet has become a true public forum.