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Social media 'likes' may not be safe in the workplace

Thursday - 6/7/2012, 7:00am  ET

WASHINGTON - Social media is getting some employees in big trouble, and even a simple "Like" can cue a boss to drop the axe.

A recent ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Raymond Jackson found that "liking" a Facebook page does not fall under constitutional protection. The opinion stemmed from a lawsuit filed by six employees of the Hampton, Va. sheriff's office, who said they were let go after Sheriff B.J. Roberts found out they supported his political rival.

Roberts said some of the workers were let go because he wanted to replace them with sworn deputies while others were fired because of poor performance or his belief that their actions "hindered the harmony and efficiency of the office."

But one of the employees "liked" the Facebook page of retired chief deputy Jim Adams, who was running against Roberts in 2009. Jackson ruled that clicking the "like" button does not amount to expressive speech.

In other words, it's not the same as actually writing out a message and posting it on the site.

"It is the court's conclusion that merely 'liking' a Facebook page is insufficient speech to merit constitutional protection," Jackson said in his opinion, according to KSL.com. "In cases where courts have found that constitutional speech protections extended to Facebook posts, actual statements existed in the record."

In the private sector, most employees aren't covered by the First Amendment, says MarketWatch reporter Ruth Mantell. The National Labor Relations Act offers protection in those cases.

Mantell reports more companies are developing social media policies, largely out of concerns over the content of what employees post and whether social media is distracting them from work.

And while individual cases can result in different outcomes for employees -- and many companies prefer not to police social media sites -- Mantell advises people not to discuss topics on social media that wouldn't be appropriate for a work meeting.

"It's really when you start sort of compromising the employer's reputation or compromising your own reputation as an employee" that things can go wrong, Mantell says.

The Associated Press and WTOP's David Burd contributed to this report. Follow David and WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP and The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)