By Becky Hogan
As of a court ruling Wednesday, “liking” something on Facebook is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment.
The Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that liking a candidate’s Facebook page is the “Internet equivalent of displaying a political sign in one’s front yard,” an activity which already has been established as free speech, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The case came up in 2009, when Sheriff BJ Roberts’ re-election campaign was struggling. To make matters worse, he found that six of his deputies had “liked” his opponent’s Facebook page, supporting the campaign to remove him from office. After Roberts won re-election, he fired all six men in retaliation. The courts faced the question of whether the firings were legal, and if not–could the simple click of a button be deemed free speech?
The federal appeals court sided with a former deputy sheriff in Hampton, Virginia who said he was fired for “liking” the Facebook page of a candidate running against his boss for city sheriff.
Courts have granted First Amendment protection in the past to written posts on Facebook.
Chief Judge William B. Traxler Jr., on the three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit, wrote in his ruling that no such distinction exists between a written statement, such as in a post, and clicking the ‘Like’ button of a page.
His argument: “On the most basic level, clicking on the ‘like’ button literally causes to be published the statement that the User ‘likes’ something, which is itself a substantive statement,” wrote Judge Traxler for the court. With the ruling, public officials are barred from retaliating against Facebook Likes.
The ruling isn’t just a victory for the plaintiffs, it’s also a big win for Facebook since the company has been pushing for the social media platform to be a hub for discussion, especially with Facebook’s recent additions of a “trending topics” section on the news feed and hashtags.
In Facebook’s push to stay relevant, part of their goal is to foster real-time dialogue with users to make hashtags and trending topics more usable.
Similar to Judge Traxler’s ruling, Facebook lawyers had argued during the trial, “if [Deputy] Carter had stood on a street corner ad announced, ‘I like Jim Adams for Hampton Sheriff,’ there would be no dispute that his statement was constitutionally protected speech.”
And according to Pew’s Civic Engagement in the Digital Age study, 39% of American adults “took part in some sort of political activity” on a social network during the 2012 elections, whether that meant liking a candidate’s Facebook page, posting a political news story, encouraging other users to vote. As more adults continue to use social networking sites to share their views, these numbers are likely to increase.
So continue to “Like” away all your favorite candidates, politicos, and incumbents–your right to Like is now protected.