A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that "liking" something on Facebook is a form of protected free speech, a decision in a closely watched Virginia case that tested the limits of the First Amendment in the digital age.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. rejected a lower court's opinion that clicking the "thumbs up" icon was not "actual speech," an opinion that would have had wide-ranging implications for millions of Facebook users and other forms of expression on the Web had it stood.
Liking "is the Internet equivalent of displaying a political sign in one's front yard, which the Supreme Court has held is substantive speech," the three-judge panel said in the 81-page opinion.
The ruling grew out of a lawsuit brought by Hampton, Va. sheriff's deputies, one of whom claimed he was fired for liking the campaign page of his boss's opponent. Daniel Ray Carter Jr. said in the 2011 suit that the dismissal violated his First Amendment rights.
But U.S. District Court Judge Raymond Jackson issued a summary judgement against Carter in January 2012, saying "liking" didn't rise to the level of protected speech. Jackson said that Carter needed to have made actual statements to make such a claim.
Facebook and the ACLU filed friend-of-the-court briefs, saying Jackson's ruling would erode free-speech rights. In the brief, Facebook said more than 3 billion likes and comments are registered every day.
Facebook users can like a range of content that appears on the social media site, from articles to photos to organizations. If a user clicks the thumbs-up icon, the content may appear on his or her Facebook feed.
"The court properly recognized that in an era when so much of our communication takes place through social media, liking a political Facebook page is an important means of political expression that deserves First Amendment expression," said Rebecca Glenberg, Virginia's ACLU legal director.