Judge: Facebook Likes not protected by First Amendment

Summary:U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson has ruled that Facebook Likes aren't speech protected by the First Amendment. Employees fired for Liking something on the social network have no legal shield.

Be careful what you Like on Facebook. Clicking the blue thumbs-up button on the social network (or anywhere you can find it on the Web) could one day end up causing you quite a bit of trouble, and you won't be able to legally shield yourself. That's because Facebook Likes are not protected speech under the First Amendment, according to a recent ruling by U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson.

The case dates back to November 2009, when after winning a re-election against Jim Adams, Hampton Virginia Sheriff B.J. Roberts fired six of his employees for supporting Adams, three of whom had Liked his opponent's Facebook Page. The three civilian workers and three uniformed deputy sheriffs were not pleased and vowed to fight back.

Bobby Bland, Daniel Carter, David Dixon, Robert McCoy, John Sandhofer, and Debra Woodward filed a lawsuit in the Eastern District of Virginia, arguing their First Amendment rights were violated. The judge disagreed, as first reported by Ars Technica.

When it came to the Facebook Likes, Jackson wrote the following:

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.

Regardless of your opinion on the ruling, you should probably check your privacy settings. If your employer can't see what you've Liked on Facebook, they can't hold it against you.

Well, right up until the point where they ask you for your Facebook password, which is legal everywhere but Maryland, but that's a different story (see links below). Facebook has warned its users they shouldn't let their employers into their accounts, not only because this would violate the service's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, but also because it potentially exposes the employer to legal liability. This is a perfect example where the employer won anyway.

Nevertheless, this should serve as another reminder that what you do in your private life and what you do online aren't exactly mutually exclusive. Before you share something on the Internet, even if it's just clicking a button, make sure you're okay with everyone knowing about it.

See also:

Topics: Social Enterprise

About

Emil is a freelance journalist writing for CNET and ZDNet. Over the years, he has covered the tech industry for multiple publications, including Ars Technica, Neowin, and TechSpot.

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