Facebook “Likes” gain constitutional protection for US employees

Happy day, USA: When we click “Like” on Facebook, we are now constitutionally protected from getting fired!

If you’re thinking, “Well, duh, wasn’t I already?”, join the club.

In fact, at least one court had hitherto decreed that the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which (more or less) ensures the right to free speech, didn’t apply to Facebook Likes.

The case came to court after a sheriff from the state of Virginia fired six employees for supporting his opponent in an election.

Mashable’s Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai reports that B.J. Roberts, the sheriff of Hampton, Virginia, had fired the employees who supported Jim Adams, his opponent in the sheriff’s election.

One of the fired employees, Former Deputy Sheriff Daniel Ray Carter, had Liked Adams’s Facebook page.

The fired employees, Facebook and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) joined forces to fight the dismissals.

Together, they argued that a Facebook Like must be considered free speech, which would in turn mean that employers couldn’t legally fire employees for expressing their opinions on the network.

In the first federal ruling on the case, a federal district judge had said that a Like was “insufficient speech to merit constitutional protection”, as Mashable reports.

The judge ruled that a Facebook Like didn’t involve an “actual statement”, unlike Facebook posts, which have hitherto been granted constitutional protection.

On Wednesday, that decision got its own thumbs-down in a federal appeals court.

Judge William Traxler, who authored the decision, said that clicking Like is much the same as putting up a political sign supporting a candidate in your front yard:

"Liking a political candidate’s campaign page communicates the user’s approval of the candidate and supports the campaign by associating the user with it. ... It is the Internet equivalent of displaying a political sign in one’s front yard, which the Supreme Court has held is substantive speech."

Both the ACLU and Facebook’s legal counsel are applauding the decision.

The decision reinstates the claims of Carter, along with two other fired employees, but they haven’t yet actually won the case. If they do, they might get their jobs back, Franceschi-Bicchierai reports.

As commenters on the Mashable story have noted, Facebook Likes can be convoluted creatures. In order to continue to see posts appear in our news streams, we need to click Like, whether that aligns us with candidates we detest or news we abhor.

But regardless of why we click Like, it shouldn’t come back to haunt us. Facebook is now very much an outlet for speech that deserves protection, whether it’s to support a candidate or to follow news about, for example, cancer research.

We follow things. We Like things. We shouldn’t be punished for it.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t clean up your slimy Facebook trail if you post about your drunken binges or how much you hate your boss.

As far as I know, the First Amendment doesn’t cover dumb.

Good luck with the case, Mr. Carter, et al. I hope you get your jobs back.

UPDATE: As commenters on my original post have pointed out, this decision doesn’t necessarily protect us all, but it will hopefully set a precedent for how other courts interpret the First Amendment as it pertains to online activities. Thanks for the input goes to Don Amith and csh.

Image of suited bloke telling you to get your coat courtesy of Shutterstock.