If you say something out loud or issue an official statement in America, you’re more than likely protected by the First Amendment. Unless you’re threatening someone or spewing hate speech, you are free to say what you like, no matter how interesting, controversial, or banal the subject matter may be.
But what if you were fired for clicking “like” on a Facebook photo? Is that considered violating the First Amendment?
Last Wednesday, the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that “likes” on Facebook are indeed protected under the First Amendment. The case that brought about this decision was one filed by a former deputy sheriff in Hampton, VA. He was fired for clicking “like” on the Facebook page of a candidate running against his boss for city sheriff. Ouch.
The court said that liking the candidate’s page was the “Internet equivalent of displaying a political sign in one's front yard, which the Supreme Court has held is substantive speech.”
However, when the case was first brought before the court last year, U.S. District Judge Raymond A. Jackson claimed that clicking “like” on Facebook was "insufficient speech to merit constitutional protection." I'm glad to see they changed their tune.
This isn’t the first time Facebook has been involved with a case contesting free speech. A server at Red Lobster in Nashville, TN, was recently suspended with full pay for posting a photo of a bill she received, which was signed with a racist slur. An Applebee’s employee was fired for posting the photo of a bill online — the reason? A pastor left her a rather rude comment regarding her confusion about proper tipping etiquette. After letting the server go, Applebee’s continued to post photos of receipts with positive comments, which in turn drew claims of hypocrisy.
As technology continues to develop, and as the world becomes even more connected through new forms of social media, it will become necessary to take these kinds of legal cases into consideration. It simply can’t be overlooked because it’s “just online” — online bullying is an epidemic, and when people lose their jobs for clicking “like” on a photo, it affects people’s lives outside of the online sphere.
Facebook expressed its approval of the decision, stating that they were “pleased the court recognized that a Facebook 'like' is protected by the First Amendment.”
I agree with Facebook, and I am curious to see the developments in this arena over the next few years. What will be protected under the First Amendment — and what will be deemed unprotected speech?