Facebook ‘like’ leads to a lawsuit and free speech debate

Brandon Butler, Network World (US)
14 August, 2012
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It started in 2009 when Daniel Ray Carter, a US deputy sheriff in Hampton, Virginia pushed the little thumbs up button on his Facebook page. Carter’s problem: He “liked” his boss’s political opponent and he claims he was fired because of it.

Carter and five of his coworkers were subsequently released of their duties in the Hampton Sheriff’s office after his boss won re-election. Sheriff B.J. Roberts says Carter’s release was not politically motivated. Carter challenged his firing in court and the issue has created a whole new debate: Is pushing the “like” button on Facebook an act of free speech protected by the First Amendment?

A US District Court Judge initially ruled against Carter and in favour of the sheriff, explaining in a summary judgment that “liking” something on Facebook is not free speech because there is no actual statement of speech for the record. Carter challenged the ruling and this week, Facebook and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) weighed in on the issue, filing amicus briefs in the 4th US Court of Appeals defending Carter.

The ACLU and Facebook argue that hitting the “like” button on Facebook is analogous to other forms of political expression, such as wearing a campaign button on a shirt, or posting a campaign sign on your front lawn. The ACLU warns of the slippery slope that a ruling upholding the firing could have on other actions on social media, such as retweeting a post on Twitter.

The case highlights the complications that come along with crafting an organisation’s social media policy.

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