“Liking” something on Facebook is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday, reviving a closely watched case over the extent to which the Constitution shields what we say on social media.
In doing so, the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with a former deputy sheriff in Hampton, Va., who said he was sacked for “liking” the Facebook page of a man running against his boss for city sheriff.
“Liking” the campaign page, the court said, was the “Internet equivalent of displaying a political sign in one’s front yard, which the Supreme Court has held is substantive speech.”
The Richmond-based appeals court reversed a ruling by a federal district judge, Raymond A. Jackson, who threw out the lawsuit last year on the grounds that a Facebook “like” was “insufficient speech to merit constitutional protection.”
Courts have granted First Amendment protection in the past to written posts on Facebook, Judge Jackson pointed out in his April 2012 ruling. But he put those cases in a separate category of speech, because they involved “actual statements.”
Chief Judge William B. Traxler Jr., writing for a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit, said no such distinction exists.
“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,” wrote Judge Traxler for the court, which ruled unanimously on the Facebook issue.
Facebook, which had urged the Fourth Circuit to reverse Judge Jackson, reacted to the ruling in a brief emailed statement by Pankaj Venugopal, associate general counsel at the social media company.
“We are pleased the court recognized that a Facebook ‘Like’ is protected by the First Amendment,” he said.