News

Court: Facebook ‘like’ deserves free speech protection

Court: Facebook ‘like’ deserves free speech protection

Photo: Associated Press

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) – Facebook users who employ the website’s “like” feature to show support for a political candidate engage in legally protected speech, a U.S. appeals court said, reviving a lawsuit examining the limits of what people may constitutionally do online.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a former deputy sheriff in Hampton, Virginia, who claimed he lost his job in retaliation for his “liking” the Facebook page of a candidate running against his boss for city sheriff.

“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,” Chief Judge William Traxler wrote for a three-judge panel of the Richmond, Virginia-based appeals court. “It is the Internet equivalent of displaying a political sign in one’s front yard, which the Supreme Court has held is substantive speech.”

The case had been brought by six former employees of Hampton Sheriff B.J. Roberts, who claimed they were fired in violation of their First Amendment rights in retaliation for their having supported his opponent Jim Adams in a 2009 election.

Wednesday’s decision revived claims by three of the six employees. It partially reversed an April 2012 ruling by U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson in Newport News, Virginia, who called the “liking” of a Facebook page “insufficient speech to merit constitutional protection.”

Among the allegations was that Roberts fired deputy Daniel Carter in retaliation for Carter’s clicking the “like” button on a campaign page for Adams. A photo of Adams also appeared on Carter’s Facebook profile in a list of pages that he “liked.”

According to court papers, Roberts allegedly told Carter after learning about one of the Facebook entries: “You’ve made your bed, now you’re going to lie in it, after the election you’re out of here.”

Down on the corner

In supporting Carter’s bid for reinstatement, Facebook said the “like” button is crucial to the Menlo Park California-based social media company’s more than 500 million users.

It added that using the button to express support for a candidate is no different from standing on a street corner and announcing one’s liking a candidate, which is protected speech.

Traxler agreed. “On the most basic level, clicking on the ‘like’ button literally causes to be published the statement that the User ‘likes’ something, which is itself a substantive statement,” he wrote.

Facebook welcomed the decision.

“We are pleased the court recognized that a Facebook ‘like’ is protected by the First Amendment,” Associate General Counsel Pankaj Venugopal said in a statement.

The American Civil Liberties Union also supported the former employees, as did the National Association of Police Organizations, which said Jackson’s holding “unduly restricts the free expression and association rights of police officers.”

James Shoemaker, a lawyer for the employees, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Jeff Rosen, a lawyer for Roberts, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The court ruled unanimously on the Facebook issue.

It said three of the six fired employees may pursue claims for reinstatement, but that Roberts was entitled to qualified immunity on their claims for money damages.

The appeals court upheld the dismissal of claims by the other three fired employees, finding no genuine factual dispute concerning their First Amendment rights. One judge dissented on the qualified immunity issue.

The case is Bland et al v. Roberts, 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 12-1671.

Recent Headlines

in Entertainment

Today’s celebrity birthdays

tomlin

These celebrities will celebrate their birthdays on Labor Day.

in Entertainment

This weekend’s celebrity birthdays

diaz

A look at the celebrities who will be celebrating this weekend.

in Entertainment

WATCH: 10 best ‘Simpsons’ episodes

In this photo released by Fox, Homer explains why he wants to bring back the annual 4th of July fireworks display, after it's cancelled for budget reasons, in the "Yellow Badge of Cowardge" Season Finale episode of "The Simpsons," in May 2014. The full 25-year run of "The Simpsons" will arrive on cable channel FXX with a summer marathon, to be paired this fall with a digital extravaganza that could turn other TV shows yellow with envy. "I'm not going to over-promise, but I think this website will provide you with affordable health care," longtime "Simpsons" executive producer Al Jean told a TV critics' meeting Monday, July 21, 2014.

The recent marathon of all 552 episodes of "The Simpsons" inspired us to sit down and come up with our 10 favorite episodes. Enjoy!

in Music

Robert Plant urges Jimmy Page to give up Led Zeppelin reunion

2012 Kennedy Center Honorees and members of the band Led Zeppelin, from left, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and Robert Plant chat on the red carpet after arriving at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors Performance and Gala Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 at the State Department in Washington.

Robert Plant has urged his former Led Zeppelin bandmate Jimmy Page to end his war of words with the singer and concentrate on recording new music.

in Entertainment

Lena Dunham and Kate Mara hit by a falling sign

Lena Dunham, of HBO's "Girls," arrives at the 66th Primetime Emmy Awards held at The Nokia Theatre  in Los Angeles.

The "Girls" and "House of Cards" actresses saw stars of their own after an accident at a Venice premiere.