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Freedom of Expression: Facebook "Likes"

Zac Efron, Michael B. Jordan and Miles Teller sign a wall at Facebook headquarters
Zac Efron, Michael B. Jordan and Miles Teller sign a wall at Facebook headquarters
Getty Images

If you are reading this on the Internet, odds are that you are at least aware of the "Like" buttons on Facebook. What you might not realize is that clicking such a button is regarded, in some contexts, as a form of political speech.

This concerns me, at least, because of how I regard such buttons. I am in general restrained in my approach to such buttons, particularly when they refer to pages--I do not wish to be credited with endorsing specific companies or political parties or the like. I will "Like" posts made by people I know, or people they know, but try to avoid doing so for reposts of statements from famous people who have their own agenda, because even if I like what they said in this statement, I do not wish necessarily to support what they say otherwise. On the other hand, if someone I actually know, even peripherally, is trying to launch a business, or sell a book or record, or otherwise promote something of which I am not necessarily fully informed, I will usually click the "Like" button after a cursory examination merely to let my readers know that this is someone I know.

And although it has not yet happened, since many of my online friends are politically involved (why else would they read these columns?), it is entirely likely that one of them will run for office, and I would probably "Like" that, not because I could vote for him (or, note that in Indo-European languages "him" always includes "her" unless otherwise indicated, while "her" always excludes "him") or even that I would or will, but only that I approve of the fact that this person is running for this office and thought my friends and readers should be alerted to that fact. Every two years I am re-nominated to serve another term as Chaplain of the Christian Gamers Guild, and I always applaud and encourage anyone nominated to run against me, because I believe in the democratic process, and that process involves offering choices.

That is why it was of some concern to read that employees of the Hampton Sheriff's Office in Virginia were fired because they "Liked" the campaign page of Jim Adams, who was running against the incumbent sheriff. They claimed in response that clicking the "Like" button constituted "substantive" political speech, which was therefore constitutionally protected, and that they could not be fired for having supported the losing candidate.

Fortunately, the U. S. Court of Appeals in Richmond agreed, likening the clicking of that button to posting a political sign in your front yard, already ruled protected "substantive" speech by the Supreme Court. That, though, raises a host of other issues. What if your click is not political? If I "Like" a company for any reason or no reason, can I lose my job if my employer sees that as promoting the competition? If I like the photography of a friend who is later arrested for involvement in child pornography, am I suddenly on the suspect list of a police investigation? Am I free to "Like" a page with no more meaning than, "my friends and readers should take a look at this", or is it now the case that to "Like" casually becomes a connection between me and everything the page represents? As someone who manages two such pages, I would hope that it is possible for you to "Like", for example, the Christian Gamers Guild not necessarily because you are a Christian or a gamer, but because you think it's good that such a group exists and does what it does, and that you have friends who would be interested, even though it is of no interest to you personally. In political terms, it seems to me that a "Like" is the equivalent of "this candidate is worth at least a look", not a statement of intent to vote for him. I like the local Radio Shack franchise, not because I think it the best place to buy everything, but because I think it the best place to buy some things, and I would hate to see it go out of business. "Likes" are not marriage vows. They are casual. Let no one make more of them than we the users ourselves do.