In a ruling last spring, U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson ruled in a case that Facebook “Likes” were not protected by the First Amendment. The case involved six employees of the Sheriff’s office in Hampton, Virginia, who were fired for liking the Facebook page of the Sheriff’s electoral opponent.
Facebook, normally derided for invading its users’ privacy, has decided to enter the legal fracas, filing a friend-of-the-court briefing on behalf of the fired employees, saying that “liking” something should be protected under free speech rights.
The core of the issue seems to be that “likes” are an online-only form of speech. Facebook had this to say in their briefing:
“If Carter [one of the employees fired] had stood on a street corner and announced, ‘I like Jim Adams for Hampton Sheriff,’ there would be no dispute that his statement was constitutionally protected speech. Carter made that very statement; the fact that he did it online, with a click of a computer’s mouse, does not deprive Carter’s speech of constitutional protection.”
The ACLU also weighed in on the issue on the side of Facebook (for once) saying in a statement that “Facebook should be applauded for filing this brief to support the free speech rights of its users. 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.”
A cynical person would say that Facebook is doing this to get good publicity in a “see, we’re not all bad!” kind of way. It’s not like the corporate giant to intervene in a relatively small case like this, but still: good on them. Even Big Brother looks out for the little guy once in a while.
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