Thanks to a decision by a federal court, what you “like” on Facebook is now protected by the First Amendment.
Just like his morning cup of coffee, Robert Taunt's computer is a necessity to get through the workday here at the La Crosse County Personnel office. The county has policies to govern its employees' use of the worldwide web, including social media sites like Facebook.
But this week's decision by a U.S. appeals court could have an impact on some companies' Facebook policies. A three-judge panel in Virginia ruled that "liking" a Facebook page is a form of speech, protected under the First Amendment.
Facebook “likes” are an online way to show support for a candidate or an issue. The decision compared them to a political sign in someone's yard, among other types of expression that are protected under federal law.
"It’s the act of carrying a sign at a protest rally,” said Nizam Arain, law issues professor at UW-La Crosse. “It's also choosing to wear a T-shirt with a certain message written on it."
But the First Amendment only protects citizens from speech restrictions by the government.
That means public employers like La Crosse County can't fire its employees for liking a page on Facebook.
"For a public employer, especially in light of this case, extra care needs to be taken,” Arain said.
Law experts say this court decision is just the beginning for social media and free speech. While technology continues to evolve, the issue will come up time and time again in the court system.
Taunt says the county's policy on social media is deliberately lenient, and at least for now, he doesn't anticipate changing that - but he is leaving that door open as Facebook and the laws regulating it, evolve.
"When the next greatest thing comes along, we'll have to respond to it,” Taunt said.