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 Sports

On Nique’s night, Eastern Conference leading Hawks pull away to beat Cavs

Fresh
Atlanta Hawks' Kyle Korver, left, high-fives teammate Mike Muscala, right, along with Al Horford, rear, after Korver hit a 3-point basket in the final minutes of an NBA basketball game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Sunday, Jan. 25, 2015, in Atlanta. The Hawks beat the Timberwolves 112-100 to win their 16th game in a row.

The Atlanta Hawks beat the Cleveland Cavaliers, 106-97, on Friday night in a game could be a preview of what's to come in the playoffs.

in Local Sports

Lynch returning to Seahawks with new contract

Fresh
Seattle Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch stands on the field at an NFL football minicamp practice Wednesday, June 18, 2014, in Renton, Wash.

Marshawn Lynch is coming back to the Seattle Seahawks under a restructured contract for the 2015 season that will pay him $12 million, according to his agent Doug Hendrickson.

in Sports

Colts announce they won’t bring back Reggie Wayne

Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne takes up his position during the first half of an NFL wildcard playoff football game against the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday, Jan. 4, 2015, in Indianapolis.

The Colts have announced they will not re-sign veteran wide receiver Reggie Wayne.

in Sports

AP source: Jets agree to acquire Brandon Marshall from Bears

Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall (15) celebrates after catching a 5-yard touchdown during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014.

A person familiar with the deal says the New York Jets have agreed to acquire star wide receiver Brandon Marshall from the Chicago Bears, pending a physical exam.

in Sports

This week’s top sports shots

AP25484007378_9

A look at some of this week's biggest plays and best photos in sports.