MANILA, Philippines — A unique case involving Facebook’s “Like” feature is stirring controversy in the US after a judge ruled that clicking the button on Facebook is not necessarily part of constitutionally protected speech.
The case involved six staff members of Hampton Sheriff B.J. Roberts who were reportedly fired on purported grounds that they supported Jim Adams, the Sheriff’s opponent in a 2009 re-election bid, by “liking” his page on Facebook.
The workers sued Roberts on the grounds that their First Amendment rights were violated, according to a report by Yahoo!.
The case took a peculiar turn after US District Judge Raymond Jackson ruled that pressing the “Like” button doesn’t necessarily amount to free speech, unlike, for example, posting a status update on the social networking site.
A lawyer interviewed by InterAksyon.com, however, said the distinction made by the judge in the case “is rather strained,” stressing that the Like button on Facebook serves many functions.
“You can express your approval of someone’s status post by liking it; you can be part of a fan page by doing so as well. You can join a group on Facebook by that very same device,” said Atty. Romel Regalado Bagares, executive director of the Center for International Law (CenterLaw).
Bagares pointed out that “liking” any element on Facebook is as much a part of social media as posting a status update, adding that by doing so, “you make known to the wide public that you are part of an expressive conduct or a group or a movement.”
The US case dealt with legally unchartered territory as previous cases had only dealt with the status updates on Facebook, and not the element of “Like.” The judge, however, failed to take into account that Facebook actually spreads a “liked” page or status to the user’s friends, which could be considered an act of free expression in itself, Bagares said.
“Liking, in other words, is a vector. Such an expressive act can lead to many directions,” he added.
Facebook “Likes” and the government
The US case has trained the spotlight on the use of social media particularly by public-sector employees, which are burdened with the responsibility to be non-partisan particularly during the time of elections.
The many elements of Facebook and other social networking sites, for Bagares, could pose a problem for government employees and officials, especially since social media has blurred the lines between what is privately posted and what is publicly shared.
“On Facebook, where everyone else is, your private account has an undeniably public dimension, even if yours is open only to your friends,” Bagares explained, citing the ability of Facebook users to share a supposed private status to a wider audience.
Such social media dynamics is normal for the everyday users of Facebook, but could take on complex forms when applied in the public sector during an electoral setting.
“Government employees or civil servants have rights to free expression too. Except perhaps in regard to issues of electioneering,” the lawyer clarified.
Bagares added that in light of such incidents, it “wouldn’t be far-fetched” that the government would draft a separate set of rules for social media usage in government.
Such set of guidelines, in fact, has already been broached in light of a tweet by Mai Mislang, a member of the Malacanang Communications Group, during the President’s state visit to Vietnam, when she tweeted how the “wine sucked” and “how there are no handsome men” there.
The guidelines, however, was not made public by the administration.
Nonetheless, Bagares stressed that such measures and guidelines could “present free speech issues” even if the ones involved are with the government.
“In fact, it is in our present times when governmental control of information, because of technological advances, can be carried out at the touch of a button,” he said.
“So all the more should we protect free expression and free access to information in this day and age,” he added.