Freedom of speech in the digital realm is a rather vague subject so far. In the past, companies have fired employees for tweeting or sharing certain things on their social circle online. This, and other similar issues, have made it pertinent that it must be decided now as to what is covered under ‘freedom of speech’ during online conversations.
The issue is in the limelight right now because, recently, a court decided that Facebook ‘likes’ were not covered under the First Amendment and hence, didn’t fall under the category of right to free speech.
It flared up when six employees at Hampton sheriff’s department liked the Facebook page of sheriff’s opponent. Due to this episode, the employees were fired because the court refused to acknowledge that Facebook likes were covered under the First Amendment.
The judge’s words were, “The sheriff’s knowledge of the posts only becomes relevant if the court finds the activity of liking a Facebook page to be constitutionally protected. It is the court’s conclusion that merely ‘liking’ a Facebook page is insufficient speech to merit constitutional protection. In cases where courts have found that constitutional speech protections extended to Facebook posts, actual statements existed in the record.”
Facebook is fighting this verdict by arguing that ‘likes’ on the social network are, indeed, covered by the First Amendment. The social network has filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that if Facebook posts are indeed considered free speech, why not Facebook likes. After all, saying ‘I like someone’ through the clicking of a button is indeed the expression of an opinion.
According to the summary of arguments from Facebook, “The district court’s holding that ‘liking’ a Facebook page is insufficient speech to merit constitutional protection” because it does not “involve[ ] actual statements.” This is a misunderstanding, according to Facebook, of the nature of the communication at issue and disregards well-settled Supreme Court and Fourth Circuit precedent. Liking a Facebook Page (or other website) is core speech: it is a statement that will be viewed by a small group of Facebook Friends or by a vast community of online users.”
It further elucidate the argument by citing a hypothetical example, “If Carter 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.”
In this legal fiasco, the American Civil Liberties Union is siding with the social network giant and is fully supportive of Facebook’s argument. According to a brief submitted by the Union, “Facebook should be applauded for filing this brief to support the free speech rights of its users,” the ACLU said in a statement. “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.”