Well, today’s article is about constitutional rights on the Internet. B.J. Roberts is a sheriff in Virginia, an in 2009 he was up for re-election. He won the election, and afterwards he fired several of his employees. He said it was to hire other, perhaps more qualified, employees, or simply because he did not consider the employees a good fit with the office. Several of the employees protested, saying that they had been fired because they had “liked” the Facebook page of Roberts’ opponent in the election, and that their dismissal violated their freedom of speech. At first the courts sided with Roberts, but in the court of appeals it was decided that “liking” a Facebook does indeed fall under the protection of free speech. So, how does ethics fall into this? Well, read on and you’ll see.
So, where does “liking” a Facebook page fall under the First Amendment? Well, in the past court-rulings have established that putting a political sign in your front lawn is free-speech, and therefore you cannot be fired for that. The court’s ruling put “liking” under the same category. But is that really right? The court which originally tried the case ruled that “liking” a Facebook page does not constitute free speech since there is no content to it. In order to be free speech there would have to be some sort of content attached to it, such as a post on the site. It was only when the case reached the court of appeals that it was ruled free speech to simply “like” a page, citing placing a sign in the yard as a supporting example. So, which court was right in its ruling? After thinking through this issue I think I have to side with the appeals court. In the first place I have to think about what it actually means for something to be “free speech”. Does it simply mean that you cannot be prosecuted for what you say? Or does it mean that you have to take responsibility for the things that you say? I think it’s the latter. Even if there are no consequences to “liking” a Facebook page, by doing so you are making a statement, a statement which at least implicitly says that you approve of the content of that page. In Matthew 12:36 it says that “…on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak”. I think that this includes the pages that people “like” on Facebook. A lot of times people, including myself, “like” a whole lot of pages, and do not think about what it means to attach their names there. We cannot be prosecuted for free speech, but we can be judged for it, and the decision to classify “liking” something on Facebook as free speech helps solidify that action as what it is: a very direct statement of support. This decision ought to make people think more carefully before hitting the like button, about what message they are sending to the Internet at large. On the other hand, there are ways to make it impossible to see a Facebook page unless you “like” it first, as detailed in this article, which raises a whole slew of ethical issues in its own right. But if you like a page without seeing it first, realize it’s trash, but forget to unlike it, it is good to know that you cannot be prosecuted for it, since you don’t actually support it. Obviously you should still try to clean up your “likes” to show what you actually support, but if you forget one or two things, at least it’s not the end of the world.
In the end, “liking” a Facebook page is just what it says: an indication that you like something, and therefore an expression of support. You might not actually like everything you “like”, but that is the message you send. As such it is goo that the government is acknowledging the power of a “like” and classifying it as free speech. This protects people from being targeted for things that they support, or even don’t support but were tricked into “liking”. In a world of ambiguity, it is goo to have some things set in stone, and protected.