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Will Facebook 'Likes' be protected as free speech?

August 9, 2012

A case involving a sheriff’s deputy fired for “liking” his boss’s political rival on Facebook could set a precedent for how speech is protected online, The Washington Post reports. A simple mouse click landed the deputy, Daniel Ray Carter Jr., at the center of an emerging First Amendment debate about whether the ubiquitous digital seal of approval is protected free speech. Carter filed a lawsuit claiming that his First Amendment rights had been violated, and his case has reached the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. 

A lower court had ruled that “liking” a Web page does not warrant protection because it does not involve “actual statements.” If the ruling is upheld many other Web-based, mouse-click actions, such as re-tweeting another Twitter user’s message, may not be protected, either.

As new technologies emerge, “We think it’s important … that the First Amendment is interpreted to protect those new ways of communicating,” says Rebecca K. Glenberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia. She equates clicking a “Like” icon to other forms of speech, such as wearing a political button on your shirt. 

In January, U.S. District Judge Raymond A. Jackson issued a summary judgment against Carter and other plaintiffs, writing that “Merely ‘liking’ a Facebook page is insufficient speech to merit constitutional protection.” Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA, says the judge’s rationale is not right, because “The First Amendment protects very brief statements as much as very long ones. It even protects symbolic speech, like burning a flag.” — Greg Beaubien

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