Is liking something expressive activity protected by the First Amendment? Does being a Facebook “friend” create the appearance of impropriety requiring the judge to recuse himself from the case? Leave it to Facebook to make us answer these questions.
You don’t like me, you just want my coupon . . .
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals is wrestling with the question of whether liking something on Facebook is protected First Amendment activity in the case of Bland v. Roberts. A jailer in Virginia liked his boss’s opposition during a campaign for sheriff. The incumbent won and the plaintiff was fired. The sheriff said it was for competency issues, but the plaintiff said retaliation was the motivating factor for the termination.
Public employers, and some private employers in some states, cannot retaliate against an employee for taking part in Constitutionally protected activity that does not interfere with work. In other words, you can’t fire a public employee just because they spoke out on a issue or supported a candidate.
So, it seems like a slam dunk case for our fired jailer. The district court dismissed his case because the court ruled “liking” something on Facebook did not amount to a “substantive statement” worthy of protection. The court determined that without more, the simple act of making one-click on Facebook does not reveal that someone is engaging in protected speech. While it is true half of the people on Facebook would like Osama bin Laden to get a 15% discount at Target, “liking” a candidate or a cause is political speech.
It’s dangerous to predict the outcome of an appeal based on oral argument, but according to this report from Bloomberg, I would put my money on a reversal.
“Carter clicked the Like because he liked something,” U.S. Circuit Judge Stephanie Thacker said to a lawyer for Hampton Sheriff B.J. Roberts during the 40 minute hearing. “How is that any different than perhaps putting a sign in the yard saying ‘I Like Ike’?” she asked.
Facebook, which got a few minutes at the hearing to argue for a reversal, made similar arguments.
The opinion should be issued in a few months and will tell us whether the over 3 billion “likes” a day on Facebook are entitled to First Amendment protection.
It is not likely your “like” will make its way to the Supreme Court. The lesson is to be careful of making employment decisions based on what you see on Facebook. The issue is more problematic for public employers, but as we have discussed before even non-union private employers need to make sure their social media policies and employment decisions do not upset the NLRB. ”Liking” a complaint from a co-worker about working conditions cannot be the basis of a termination. ”Liking” Coke when you work at Pepsi in an at will state probably can be.
MAKING “FRIENDS” WITH THE JUDGE
Meanwhile, the court of appeals here in Texas held that being “friends” with a judge on Facebook should not be the basis of a criminal conviction reversal.
In Youkers v . Texas, the criminal defendant was accused of violating the terms of his parole supervision which sent him to jail for eight years. On appeal, Youkers argued the father of the victim in the underlying crime was Facebook friends with the judge and sent the judge a Facebook message. Therefore, the defendant argued, there was an improper bias and the conviction should be overturned.
The Facebook message
When you only hear part of the story, things look bad. Yes, there was an ex parte Facebook message from the victim’s father to the judge. The message, however, sought leniency for the defendant. The judge also disclosed the message to everyone without any objection and warned the father not to do it again.
The Facebook “friendship”
The more interesting question is whether merely being friends with a judge on Facebook provides even an appearance of impropriety. I’ve had interesting discussions about this topic at various ethics CLE’s with judges and private practitioners. And, yes, I am Facebook friends with several judges.
The court of appeals ruled judges are not prohibited from using social media. In Texas, unfortunately, we elect our judges. The court realized the judges need to be on social media.
As pointed out in Professor Goldman’s Technology and Marketing Law Blog:
Merely designating someone as a “friend” on Facebook “does not show the degree or intensity of a judge’s relationship with a person.” ABA Op. 462. One cannot say, based on this designation alone, whether the judge and the “friend” have met; are acquaintances that have met only once; are former business acquaintances; or have some deeper, more meaningful relationship. Thus, the designation, standing alone, provides no insight into the nature of the relationship.
Without more, the defendant could not prove there was an improper evidence.
The ABA cautions judges to use social media within the existing ethical rules (endorsing political candidates is a tough one) and this case should give lawyers here in Texas a little more comfort about friending judges. The practicing bar has a little more freedom. Yet, the existing ethical rules still apply to our social media use. For instance, we cannot imply we hold any sway with a particular jurist and a simple Facebook friendship does not do that – particularly when the elected judge is friends with hundreds of lawyers.
A lot of the judges are our friends. Before they got on the bench, they were our colleagues. Once on the bench, they are still our neighbors, our kids’ coaches and friends. We socialize with them outside the courthouse. With Facebook, there is just a record.