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. This week, Facebook and the ACLU filed briefs supporting what they say is Carter’s constitutional right to express his opinion, signaling the case’s potentially precedent-setting nature.
The interest was sparked by a lower court’s ruling that “liking” a page does not warrant protection because it does not involve “actual statements.” If the ruling is upheld, the ACLU and others worry, a host of Web-based, mouse-click actions, such as re-tweeting (hitting a button to post someone else’s tweet on your Twitter account), won’t be protected as free speech.
“We think it’s important as new technologies emerge . . . that the First Amendment is interpreted to protect those new ways of communicating,” said Rebecca K. Glenberg, legal director of the ACLU of Virginia. “Pressing a ‘like’ button is analogous to other forms of speech, such as putting a button on your shirt with a candidate’s name on it.”
Facebook’s like button appears next to many different types of content on the site, from photos of a friend’s kids to an organization’s page to news articles. When someone clicks the button, an announcement is posted on his or her profile saying that the user likes that piece of content. The like is usually displayed to the user’s Facebook friends as well. Facebook says more than 3 billion likes and comments are registered every day.
The like controversy is just one of many thorny issues surrounding social media in the workplace.
In April, the Marine Corps said it would discharge a sergeant who criticized President Obama on his Facebook page — including allegedly putting the president’s face on a poster for the movie “Jackass.” And last fall, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that a New York nonprofit illegally fired five workers who criticized a colleague on the site.
The board, a federal agency that brings labor-related complaints on behalf of workers, said it had seen the number of cases involving social media skyrocket from zero to more than 100 over five years.
Carter’s troubles began in the summer of 2009, when longtime Hampton Sheriff B.J. Roberts was running for reelection, according to the lawsuit, filed in federal court in Newport News in March 2011. Roberts learned that some of his employees, including Carter, were actively supporting another high-ranking Sheriff’s Office official, Jim Adams, in the election.