Recently, our own Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals considered the First Amendment in the context of 21st century technology. As you likely know all too well, Facebook has invaded most areas of our lives – it seems only appropriate that it envelop our jurisprudence, as well. As reported by The Washington Post, the Fourth Circuit has held that by clicking the “Like” button on a Facebook post a person is exercising his or her First Amendment rights. The case is Bland v. Roberts, — F. 3d —, No. 12-1671 (4th Cir. Sept. 18, 2013) [PDF].
The facts of the case are straightforward, but they inspire some good old fashioned eye rolling. A Hampton, Virginia sheriff’s deputy was fired after he clicked “Like” on the Facebook campaign page of the candidate running against his boss. [Sidenote: Why would you do that? This is a clear violation of the “silly plaintiff” rule. But we digress.] The fired employee, Daniel Ray Carter, sued, saying that he was fired for exercising his free speech rights. The federal district court granted summary judgment against Carter on the grounds that clicking “Like” was not an actual statement, and thus, it did not rise to the level of protected speech. Both Facebook and the ACLU filed amicus briefs in which they disagreed with the district court. The Fourth Circuit overruled the district court, and we believe rightly so. Judge Traxler, writing the opinion, likened the “Like” to a political sign posted in a front yard. Did Carter have the right to display a yard sign of his boss’s opponent on his front lawn? Yes. [Is it a good idea? Different question.] In our opinion, the district court not only got it wrong, but very wrong. First Amendment jurisprudence makes it abundantly clear that non-verbal “speech” is protected. The district court seems to have stepped back in time, forgetting some important precedent.
The Washington Post also had a nice article preceding the Fourth Circuit’s opinion, highlighting other disputes that have arisen from the use of social media in the workplace. You can find that story here.
Do you “Like” the Court’s opinion? What implications do you think it will have going forward? Remember, the related issue of an employer’s ability to force employees to give up Facebook passwords is also still hanging out there. A U.S. News report from April 2013 on that subject, outlining the lawsuits and proposed legislation, can be found here.