Last October, in Bland v. Roberts, the 4th Circuit held that a Facebook “like” qualifies as speech protected by the First Amendment. As we know, however, the First Amendment does not apply to private workplaces, in which employees do not enjoy constitutional free speech rights. Employees do, however, enjoy the right to talk among themselves about wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment—concerted activity protected by the National Labor Relations Act.
Soon, the National Labor Relations Board will decide whether an employee clicking the “Like” button on another employee’s Facebook post or comment is sufficient to qualify as protected concerted activity.
In a case involving Watertown, Connecticut-based Triple Play Sports Bar [pdf], an Administrative Law Judge wrote:
Spinella’s selecting the “Like” option on LaFrance’s Facebook account constituted participation in the discussion that was sufficiently meaningful as to rise to the level of concerted activity. Spinella’s selecting the “Like” option, so that the words “Vincent VinnyCenz Spinella…like[s] this” appeared on the account, constituted, in the context of Facebook communications, an assent to the comments being made, and a meaningful contribution to the discussion. [T]he Board has never parsed the participation of individual employees in otherwise concerted conversations, or deemed the protections of Section 7 to be contingent upon their level of engagement or enthusiasm. Indeed, so long as the topic is related to the employment relationship and group action, only a “speaker and a listener” is required.
As much as it pains me, the ALJ’s reasoning is sound. Speech is speech, whether it’s engaging in an oral conversation, writing a comment to a Facebook post, or clicking “Like.” Liking something on Facebook is akin to an endorsement of, or agreement with, the comment liked.
To paraphrase what I wrote when commenting on the the Bland v. Roberts decision, protected concerted activity rights likely extend to symbolic speech on social networks, such as liking a Facebook page or post, or retweeting someone’s tweet. I would expect the NLRB to agree with the ALJ when it announces its decision later this year. In the meantime, employers need to take heed before taking action based on these online activities.
Jon Hyman is a partner in the Labor & Employment group of Kohrman Jackson & Krantz. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, contact Hyman at (216) 736-7226 or email@example.com. Follow Hyman on Twitter at @jonhyman.