The Limits of Free Speech in Social Media


Are your social media posts protected by free speech, or can you get fired, arrested, or kicked off the team (or Twitter) for what you say or “like?”  It seems Facebook and Twitter are still working out the legal kinks in the system.

Not Allowed to “Like”?

A sheriff in Hampton, Virginia fired numerous employees for “liking” his reelection challenger on Facebook. The employees’ suit was thrown out of court on grounds that “likes” are not protected by free speech; however, the American Civil Liberties Union is backing up an appeal in Virginia’s federal appeals court, saying “likes” were expressing a political opinion—definitely protected by free (symbolic) speech.

Social Media Olympics

An Olympic athlete from Greece was booted from the Games after an insensitive tweet about Africans. The Greek Olympic governing body banned its athletes from posting and tweeting non-Olympic-related opinions during what has been called the Social Media Olympics. While free speech seems to be what drives many to join Twitter, the site does have rules about abuse and pornography.

Will Twitter Tattle?

Privacy rights on social media sites are still taking shape; Twitter never seems to know what to do when authorities want info on tweeters.  An uproar was recently caused when Twitter suspended the account of an angry British reporter, Guy Adams, who tweeted the email address of the head of NBC Olympics (presumably in hopes to unleash others angered by NBC’s tape-delyaed coverage of the Olympics). Interestingly, the suspension came after Twitter asked NBC to file a complaint; not long after, Twitter informed the journalist that the complaint had been withdrawn, and Guy Adams’ account was reinstated. In a statement on the incident, Twitter said, “We do not proactively report or remove content on behalf of other users no matter who they are. This behavior is not acceptable and undermines the trust our users have in us.” Twitter also promised to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

Twitter refused to identify a person tweeting threats to kill patrons of a Broadway theater, according to the NYPD. Finally, a subpoena was issued and the company complied, however Twitter is working on determining when and whether it must respond to subpoenas for its users in the future, according to Bloomberg. Twitter typically tells its users whenever authorities ask about their postings, something that has reportedly happened more than 900 times this year in the U.S. alone.