What Is the Meaning of 'Like'?: The First Amendment Implications of Social-Media Expression

Ira P. Robbins

American University - Washington College of Law

June 18, 2013

2013 Federal Courts Law Review 127
American University, WCL Research Paper No. 2013-14

Everywhere the Internet goes, new legal problems are sure to follow. As social media expands and infiltrates our daily lives, society must grapple with how to extend the law to modern situations. This problem becomes increasingly pressing as more and more of our social interactions take place online. For example, Facebook has become a colossal gathering place for friends, families, co-workers, frenemies, and others to disseminate their ideas and share information. Sometimes Facebook replaces old institutions; other times it augments them. Where once a neighbor would show allegiance to a political candidate by staking a sign on the front lawn, a user now clicks Like on a candidate’s Facebook Page instead.

In 2009, a deputy sheriff was fired for doing just that. A U.S. district court, in an opinion that demonstrates the inability of the current legal framework to adequately address social-media activity, held that the termination did not violate the deputy sheriff’s First Amendment rights. The judge reasoned that clicking Like does not constitute speech – let alone protected speech – because it is not substantive.

This Article demonstrates that the court not only failed to follow well-established Supreme Court precedent, but also fundamentally misunderstood the technological consequences of clicking Like, which include textual statements as well as the symbolic thumbs up sign. Liking a political candidate’s Facebook Page is the twenty-first century equivalent of a campaign yard sign and, under the Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence, should be considered protected speech.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 26

Keywords: Facebook, social networking, First Amendment, Like, Liking, freedeom of speech, pure speech, symbolic speech, strict scrutiny, political speech, employee speech, Internet communication, matters of public concern

JEL Classification: K00, K10, K19, K30, K39, K40, K41, K49

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Date posted: June 21, 2013  

Suggested Citation

Robbins, Ira P., What Is the Meaning of 'Like'?: The First Amendment Implications of Social-Media Expression (June 18, 2013). 2013 Federal Courts Law Review 127; American University, WCL Research Paper No. 2013-14. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2281881

Contact Information

Ira P. Robbins (Contact Author)
American University - Washington College of Law ( email )
4300 Nebraska Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20016
United States
202-274-4235 (Phone)
202-274-4130 (Fax)
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