Back in May, a federal judge ruled that a Facebook “like” is not considered speech that can be protected by the First Amendment. You can read more background on the story here, but basically, a man (Deputy Sheriff Daniel Ray Carter of Hampton, Virginia), believes he was fired from his job over a Facebook like. As far as the court was concerned, that was within reason, because liking something on Facebook does not fall under freedom of speech.
Well, the decision is being appealed, and now Facebook and the American Civil Liberties Union have come to the aid of the man. Facebook said in a friend-of-the-court brief, “When a Facebook User Likes a Page on Facebook, she engages in speech protected by the First Amendment.”
The ACLU says in its own brief:
With “one click of a button,” an Internet user can upload or view a video, donate money to a campaign, forward an email, sign a petition, send a pre-written letter to a politician, or do a myriad of other indisputably expressive activities. The ease of these actions does not negate their expressive nature. Indeed, under the district court’s reasoning, affixing a bumper sticker to your car, pinning a campaign pin to your shirt, or placing a sign on your lawn would be devoid of meaning absent further information, and therefore not entitled to constitutional protection because of the minimal effort these actions require. All of these acts are, of course, constitutionally protected…
That many people today choose to convey what they like or which political candidates they support by “Liking” a Web page rather than by writing the actual words, “I like this Web page” or “I like this candidate,” is immaterial. Whether someone presses a “Like” button to express those thoughts or presses the buttons on a keyboard to write out those words, the end result is the same: one is telling the world about one’s personal beliefs, interests, and opinions. That is exactly what the First Amendment protects, however that information is conveyed.
ACLU staff attorney Aden Fine said, “Facebook should be applauded for filing this brief to support the free speech rights of its users. The Supreme Court has made clear that the First Amendment protects everyone’s right to express their thoughts and opinions in whatever form they choose to do so. Facebook has become a means of communication for tens of millions of Americans, and if basic activity on Facebook such as “liking” were denied First Amendment protection, the free expression of ideas that the First Amendment is meant to safeguard would be severely limited.”
It will be interesting to see where the appeals court lands on the issue. It could have huge ramifications for how people engage on social networks.