Sheriff BJ Roberts of Hampton, Virginia appears to have used some unusual means for re-election in 2009: he is alleged to have required prisoners to organise political events, and to have made city employees buy and sell tickets to campaign fundraisers. The plaintiffs in Bland v Roberts (ED Virginia, 24 April 2012) also alleged that he fired them for supporting his rival, Jim Adams, in violation of their 1st Amendment rights to free speech. But had the plaintiffs engaged in constitutionally protected activities? One had ‘liked’ Adams on Facebook; another had an Adams bumper-sticker.
The district court didn’t think either of these expressions was sufficient to warrant protection, and there was evidence that bumper-sticker dude had been sacked for using profane language to a co-worker (at an election booth, mind you, where he referred to Roberts’s campaign literature as ‘f ---ing s---’). This was put down to a private grievance, not the expression of a matter of political concern that was being unduly squelched. Claims that the fired employees’ freedom of association had been violated were purely speculative – and anyway, Roberts enjoyed immunity as a constitutional officer of the state.
All sounds a bit messed up, especially on the Facebook point: surely even the smallest political act is worthy of protection. Perhaps a further indication that democracy is under threat in the republic to the south of this peaceable kingdom?