Facebook Likes as protected free speech

(Please note, because of the time that has passed since I wrote this article, it may no longer reflect my current views or the most accurate and complete information available on this subject.)

Facebook Meh ButtonDaniel Ray Carter Jr., a sheriff's deputy in Virginia, claims he was fired because he "Liked" a Facebook post belonging to the political rival of his own boss. When he fought the firing in court, the judge ruled against him saying that clicking the "Like" button isn't protected speech: "It is not the kind of substantive statement that has previously warranted constitutional protection."

The case presents an interesting dilema.

On one hand, I hope we're reaching the point where most people understand that clicking the Facebook "Like" on a statement, article or page is not the equivalent of an endorsement of all the things that article/page/group stands for.

Some people surely hit the "Like" button because some part of an article or post made them think or laugh, even if they didn't read the whole thing.  Some people probably hit the button by accident.  It's possible for a Facebook user to be casually added to a page or group without much thought.   In some cases, groups insist on your clicking of the "Like" button before you can have access to content or features you came there for - a strange (and much more publicly visible) evolution of the traditional "join our mailing list and we'll give you something free in return" marketing technique.  So while prompting a Like of something might be a connection worth having, it seems like we have to be careful about ascribing strong intentions of support to any particular click of that button.

On the other hand, it would be unfortunate if we dismissed the important symbolism and "speech" that can come from simple, non-verbal actions.  Whether it's a raised fist or even just standing up at all in certain settings, there are ways of communicating powerful messages without saying a word.  If only for the sake of those who might be physically unable to speak words, we should be able to recognize non-verbal speech as speech potentially worth protecting.

In a world where political and cultural battle lines are increasingly being drawn as 140-character Tweets and one-liners on Facebook, we probably need to start taking someone's statements and actions in those new media as seriously as we've taken their physical and verbal analogs. (Though even if Carter's clicking of the Like button using his personal Facebook account was an outright endorsement for his boss's opponent, I can't agree with the response of terminating his employment.)

So, what do you think - should "Liking" something be protected free speech?

2 thoughts on “Facebook Likes as protected free speech

  1. I would never have guessed that anyone would be persecuted or punished for such a thing! Obviously, I think something so benign as clicking "like" on an article, poster, cartoon, or anything should not have to be protected as a right, but should be a "given". In fact, that this even happened completely violates my sense of sanity! Looks like a lot of people are going to get fired, threatened, demoted, or how ever else a bully deems to punish anyone who would not agree with them!

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