Virginia Judge Gets Facebook Ruling Wrong

I just read an article about a Virginia Judge who ruled that a sheriff had the right to fire an employee because that employee “liked” the sheriff’s political opponent’s Facebook page. In some states that would be a fireable offense, but Virginia law actually allows public employees to speak out on political matters because Virginia views that as free speech. So why could he fire the guy?

According to Judge Raymond Jackson, clicking the “Like” button doesn’t count as free speech because, “Simply liking a Facebook page is insufficient,” the judge wrote. “It is not the kind of substantive statement that has previously warranted constitutional protection … For the Court to assume that the Plaintiffs made some specific statement without evidence of such statements is improper.”

Question for Judge Jackson:

“Have you ever been on Facebook?”

“Oh, you haven’t, well do you know what the Internet is?”

Apparently, if the dude had just written “Hey. I like you” on the page, he would have been fine. He probably still would have been fired because, well, let’s face it, it’s not the wisest career move to back the enemy of your boss. But he would have had a case that his rights had been violated and might have gotten some compensation.

I honestly cannot fathom how that is not protected speech, but let’s say, for the sake of argument, there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for the ruling that I can’t understand because I don’t have a law degree. There is another potential factor in this case that isn’t being discussed even if the judge had ruled differently:

Liking a Facebook page is not necessarily advocating what that page stands for - unlike an individual’s status update, a Facebook page’s “Like” button is more like a “Subscribe” button.

Most Facebook pages are set to not let anyone comment on them unless they “like” the page. You also don’t receive updates from a page in your news feed unless you “like” it. Neither of those means you endorse the beliefs of the page owner.

For example, when the whole Susan G. Komen/Planned Parenthood debacle happened, Komen and its affiliates got a ton of new “likes” on their Facebook pages. And not because everyone was so happy about their decision. It was the opposite. Droves of people who had been fed up with Komen for years or who disagreed with their recent decision “liked” their page simply to comment on their wall and tell them they were wrong. They could not have expressed their opinions to Komen or kept up with Komen’s response (or lack thereof) if they didn’t “like” Komen’s Facebook page.

University of Alabama fans “like” Auburn affiliated pages (and vice versa) and Yankees fans “like” Red Sox pages (and vice versa) with the sole purpose of trolling those pages to put the other fan base down. Lots of my friends “like” Wal Mart just to keep up with sales. None of these people likes what these pages stand for, in fact, quite the opposite, but it’s the way Facebook works.

The guy who was fired did, in fact, endorse his boss’ opponent (which again – bonehead, of course you got fired), but it’s scary to think that “liking” a page could lead to punishable action in the real world either way.

Which leads to a whole different topic about how a lot of the people in charge don’t really have a clue as to what they are making decisions about. But that’s for another time….

Thanks for reading,

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