Facebook "Likes" Are Now Protected As Free Speech Under The First Amendment
Facebook’s “Like” feature, the button that results in a blue thumbs-up icon indicating your support of a particular status, page, photo or other item on the social networking site, is now protected under the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, located in Richmond, VA, overturned a previous ruling that determined button-clicking did not constitute free speech because it is not a significant-enough act.
The case began when Hampton, VA Sheriff BJ Roberts was running for re-election, The Verge reports. Roberts checked his opponent Jim Adam’s Facebook page and found that six employees of the police department had “liked” the page. Roberts subsequently fired those employees, four of whom were deputies.
The initial case was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Raymond A. Jackson on the grounds that the “Like” button did not necessarily correspond with a user’s personal feelings. “It is not the kind of substantive statement that has previously warranted constitutional protection. The Court will not attempt to infer the actual content of Carter’s posts from one click of a button on Adams’ Facebook page," Jackson said.
After protest from Facebook and the ACLU, the Court of Appeals reversed that ruling. The judges cited political signs, which are protected by the 1st Amendment, as a precedent, claiming that Facebook Likes are the “Internet equivalent of displaying a political sign in one’s yard.” The court also refuted the previous ruling’s claim that clicking a button was an insignificant act in the digital age. “That a user may use a single mouse click to produce that message that he likes the page instead of typing the same message with several individual key strokes is of no constitutional significance,” the ruling claimed.
Now that this ruling has been clarified, employers such as Roberts will no longer be able to justifiably fire employees on the sole basis that they “liked” something that they found unfavorable. Facebook still has not rolled out a “Dislike” button, so users will have to exert a little more effort to express their 1st amendment-protected disapproval.