Clicking “Like” on a Facebook post or page is now a form of speech protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, according to an opinion issued on Wednesday by a federal appeals court, which overturned a previous ruling to the contrary.

The decision (.PDF) to consider a Facebook “Like” as protected speech may set a precedent of how courts apply freedom of speech rules to users’ online activities.

For the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va,, Liking a candidate on Facebook should have the same protections as real-life actions that show political support.

“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,” wrote Judge William Traxler, who authored the opinion. “It is the Internet equivalent of displaying a political sign in one’s front yard, which the Supreme Court has held is substantive speech.”

The case hinged over whether B.J. Roberts, the sheriff of Hampton, Va., illegally fired six of his employees who supported Jim Adams, his opponent in the sheriff’s elections. One of the employees, Former Deputy Sheriff Daniel Ray Carter, had Liked the Facebook page of his boss’ political opponent.

Facebook, the fired employees and the American Civil Liberties Union argued that a Facebook Like must be considered free speech. This would mean that an employer cannot legally fire his or her employees for expressing opinions on the social network. an employer cannot legally fire his or her employees for expressing opinions on the social network.

The federal district judge who first ruled on the issue decided that a Facebook Like was “insufficient speech to merit constitutional protection.” For the judge, a Facebook Like didn’t involve an “actual statement,” unlike Facebook posts, which have been granted constitutional protection in other legal cases.

Today, Judge Traxler disagreed.

“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,” he wrote.

“We are pleased the court recognized that a Facebook ‘Like’ is protected by the First Amendment,” read an emailed statement by Pankaj Venugopal, Facebook’s associate general counsel.

The ACLU applauded the decision as well. “This ruling rightly recognizes that the First Amendment protects free speech regardless of the venue, whether a sentiment is expressed in the physical world or online. The Constitution doesn’t distinguish between ‘liking’ a candidate on Facebook and supporting him in a town meeting or public rally,” said Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project in an emailed statement.

The ruling reinstated the claims of Carter and two other fired employees. If they win the case, they may get their jobs back.

Do you agree with this decision? Should the First Amendment protect Facebook Likes?

Image: Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images