Could you get fired for a Facebook 'like'?

A judge rules that Facebook 'likes' are not protected speech. Does this mean you should be a little more careful about what you admit to liking?

Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

I have no idea why people feel the desperate need to tell others about their likes.

Perhaps it is something to do with suppressed childhoods. Perhaps it is something to do with a longing to find others with the same predilections, so as to believe that one isn't entirely batty in one's preferences.

But a court case might lead some to wonder whether it's worth expressing your fondness for, say, the collected works of Karl Marx or the troubling designs of Ann Taylor.

For, as the New York Times reports it, a judge in Virginia has ruled that Facebook "likes" are not protected speech.

In the case before him, Judge Raymond A. Jackson -- who, I am sure, is very likable -- said that the mere clicking of a Facebook button is not the same as writing something down and then posting your musing.

The issue at hand was the firing by Hampton, Va., Sheriff B.J. Roberts of six employees. They sued, claiming that they had not been fired for any incompetence, but rather for believing that his opponent, Jim Adams, was more competent.

One of the six had gone so far as to "liking" Adams on Facebook -- a fact of which Roberts admitted he was aware.

Public employees do have the right to speak out on matters of public import. But whether you are a public employee or a private one, everything you "like" can be construed by your employer as saying something about you. Something permanent, rather than temporary, occasional, political or even humorous.

Here, then, is your conundrum, should you wish to have a career in one of the supposed professions left that can offer such a thing.

If your employers happen upon your Facebook fondness for, say, Ayn Rand, Rand Paul or Paul McCartney, might they suddenly choose to declare that you have "hindered the harmony and efficiency of the office," as Sheriff Roberts claimed in this case?

In fact, given that companies seem ever more enamored of trawling through your socially networked self in order to discover supposed truths, doesn't the Facebook "like" offer an innocently dangerous form of self-expression?

Legal experts say such an issue will ultimately be decided by a court slightly more exalted than Judge Jackson's. However, it has surely been established that anything and everything you do online can, at some point in your life, be used against you (however subtly).

Who is to say that your company doesn't every week examine what its employees have liked on Facebook during the previous 7 days?

It's not as if HR departments are overworked most of the time. And just imagine what fun they might have putting together complex maps of your head's inner workings.

You work at Google and you just "liked" Larry Ellison? You work at Facebook and you just "liked" the Electronic Frontier Foundation? You work at Fox News and you just "liked" Gawker?

Which might lead some to wonder whether "liking" anything is worth the trouble. Oh, by the way, please don't forget to "like" this post, as it'll make me feel warm all over.

 

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