RICHMOND, Va. – Clicking “like” on Facebook is constitutionally protected free speech and can be considered the 21st century equivalent of a campaign yard sign, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond reversed a lower court ruling that said merely “liking” a Facebook page was insufficient speech to merit constitutional protection.

Exactly what a “like” means played a part in a Virginia case involving six people who say Hampton Sheriff B.J. Roberts fired them for supporting an opponent in his 2009 re-election bid, which he won. The workers sued, saying their First Amendment rights were violated.

Roberts said some of the workers were let go because he wanted to replace them with sworn deputies while others were fired for poor performance or similar reasons. One of the workers had “liked” the Facebook page of Roberts’ opponent, Jim Adams.

U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson in Norfolk ruled in April 2012 that while public employees are allowed to speak as citizens on matters of public concern, clicking “like” does not amount to expressive speech. In other words, it’s not the same as writing out a message and posting it.

The three-judge appeals court panel disagreed, ruling that “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.” The case was sent back to the lower court.