Who knew the Facebook Like button could cause so much legal and political strife?
A U.S. federal appeals court ruling brought on by a lawsuit in 2009 by six former employees of a sheriff's office has decided that yes, liking things on Facebook is constitutionally protected free speech. During Sheriff BJ Robert's re-election, Roberts noticed that six of his deputies liked his opponent's page, who signed on the campaign to remove him from office. When Roberts won the re-election, he fired all six men for supporting his opponent. Roberts is justified in feeling betrayed by the six former deputies, but the men should not have been fired based on expression of political opinion.
The court of appeals recognizes that the Facebook Likes qualify for free speech protection stating the "Internet equivalent of displaying a political sign in one's front yard." This allows the men who were terminated from the sheriff's office to legitimately sue Robert for wrongfully discharging them.
Facebook has been pushing for activity on the social media platform to be protected under free speech and to be recognized as any other political expression. Pankaj Venugopal, associate general counsel at Facebook, commented:
"We are pleased the court recognized that a Facebook 'Like' is protected by the First Amendment."
The 'Like' feature is used by 500 million users on Facebook. These users deserve to be protected, not to fear that their opinions will cost them their jobs, relationships, etc. This has become even more important as Facebook now has advanced Graph search features around people's Likes.
If Sheriff Roberts loses in the lawsuit, he wouldn't have to pay the former employees, but the six men will have the opportunity to get their jobs back. Because the sheriff was unaware of the legal proceedings in termination due to "political loyalty," he will be granted immunity by the Court.
While it's a victory that the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Facebook 'Likes' are protected speech, it's unclear whether the former employees of the sheriff's office would want their jobs back. Many Facebook users are presumably breathing a sigh of relief as many of have liked pages and comments they can't even recall.