One click of the mouse on Facebook can now potentially be protected by the United States Constitution. On September 18, a federal appeals court ruled that “liking” something on Facebook is an act of free speech that is constitutionally shielded by the First Amendment. According to the Huffington Post, the case was sparked in 2009 when sheriff B.J Roberts of Virginia fired six of his employees during his political campaign for supporting his rival in an election, in part by “liking” the opposing candidate’s Facebook page. Daniel Ray Carter Jr., one of the terminated employees, filed a lawsuit to defend his freedom of speech, but the state district court ruled against him, arguing that a “like” was not a “substantive statement” that deserved constitutional protection.
In the appeals process, the American Civil Liberties Union and more importantly, Facebook, sided with Carter. According to Forbes, Facebook filed an amicus curiae brief claiming that the “Like” feature is essential and understood to all its users sharing ideas on its social network, thus warranting First Amendment protection. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Virginia agreed and reversed earlier rulings by ruling that a “like” conveys a clear message such as an approval of a candidate. The court likened a Facebook “like” to a political sign displayed on a front yard, which is already constitutionally protected.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Ed Uthman (euthman)
I agree with the court’s ruling for three reasons. First, I believe in the consistency of the law. Other actions that involve clicks of the mouse, such as uploading a video or making a contribution to a political campaign via the Internet, are already considered acts of freedom or expression, so “liking” something on Facebook should be a legal equivalent.
I firmly believe that individual freedoms should be expanded to equate to freedoms afforded in the real world. For example, the right to put up a political banner on my front yard without fear of discrimination by employers or the government is an important personal freedom for me because of my passion for politics. In the same vein, I believe that I have the right to “like” a page on Facebook without fear. As the use of social networking continues to increase, I believe that people’s involvement, including “likes”, comments, messages, and tweets, will become more important or substantial to them, thus warranting legal protection.
Lastly, I believe that a “like” does represent an approval or message, however tepid the user’s endorsement is. In my personal experience, most of my friends and I only like pages that hold some sort of value or connection to us. For example, I “like” Nike’s Facebook page because I think the company offers high-quality products, Rafael Nadal’s page because he is my favorite tennis player, and Johnny Depp’s page because I believe he is a fantastic actor.
Despite my agreement, I believe the ruling will lead to muddy legal ground relating to the “Like” feature. For example, let’s say an employee is suing a boss because he believes he was wrongly terminated based on his sexual orientation. Let’s also say that the boss “likes” the Facebook page of comedian Tracy Morgan, who has made serious antigay remarks in the past few years. Further assume that Morgan often posts homophobic content on his own page. It is a stretch, but lawyers defending the hypothetical employee could use the boss’s “like” as evidence that he is homophobic when in fact he could have “liked” Morgan’s page just because he enjoys his acting.
For more information regarding employee rights on social networking sites, read the Massachusets Municipal Association’s informational pamphlet.
Feature image courtesy of Flickr user Sean MacEntee