Your Facebook ‘Like’ is constitutionally protected speech

September 18, 2013

(AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)

When you "Like" something on Facebook, that's a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, according to a new federal appeals court ruling.

That might seem obvious, but legally, whether actions that have become embedded in Internet culture have speech ramifications has long been unclear. Now, the Virginia-based appellate court says liking something on Facebook and saying you like something on Facebook are the same thing.

"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," the opinion reads. "In the context of a political campaign’s page, the meaning that the user approves of the candidacy whose page is being liked is unmistakable. That a user may use a single mouse click to produce that message that he likes the page instead of typing the same message with several individual key strokes is of no constitutional significance."

At issue is whether B.J. Roberts, the elected sheriff of Hampton, Va., violated his employees' free-speech rights by firing them for liking his political opponent's campaign page on Facebook. The appellate court ruling overturns a previous opinion that found that Facebook likes were not speech.

While this is an unquestionable victory for the First Amendment, it actually raises more questions than it answers. Take the Facebook like widget beside this article. If clicking that button is a form of speech, does that imply that all the sharing buttons beneath it are also opportunities for speech? Judging by the ruling, one might think so.

Yet the Facebook like is also slightly different from other sharing buttons in that clicking it not only causes you to speak, but — in the eyes of the court — the speech that comes out is positive. For anyone who's shared an article they hated, the dilemma here is apparent. By the court's logic, the like is considered valid speech mainly because it produces an automated statement of support via Facebook's technology. It also happens to be symbolic speech because the "thumbs-up" icon implies support.

Does that mean that if I share something on another social network that doesn't explicitly say "Brian Fung likes this," or if it fails to graphically indicate my support of the item in question, then it isn't speech? What happens when I only ironically like something but don't literally support what's being liked? What if the design on the button isn't a thumbs-up but a "Tweet" button? Are retweets really endorsements now? Is the fact that I linked to Slate just now an endorsement of Slate?

Citing the 1994 case City of Ladue v. Gilleo, the court reasons that Facebook likes are similar to political lawn signs in that they're both symbolic expressions. What's more, the judges say, the "thumbs-up" icon is reminiscent of a 1974 case known as Spence v. Washington, which held that expression occurs when "there is an intent to convey a particularized message."

Does the same logic apply to a "tweet this" button? We'll have to wait for future courts to figure that out.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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Andrea Peterson | September 18, 2013