TROY professor pens First Amendment study

Posted: Monday, 09 February 2015

TROY - A Troy University professor has co-authored a landmark study in First Amendment protections of speech on social media.

The paper was published in October 2014 in the Taylor & Francis journal, "First Amendment Studies," and has become the journal's most widely downloaded study, with more than 1,000 downloads in less than four months.

"This accomplishment is a testament to the significant academic interest in social media behavior and the First Amendment," said Dr. Susan Sarapin, an assistant professor in the Hall School of Journalism and Communication who co-authored the paper with Dr. Pamela Morris, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse.

The paper focuses on the "Bland v. Roberts" court case where six plaintiffs sued for being punished for the use of social media platform Facebook's "Like" button, including a Virginia deputy sheriff who was fired for "liking" the Facebook page of his sheriff's political opponent. The professors conducted original research in how people use Facebook and what they believe they are communicating when using the "Like" button on Facebook, and whether or not their speech should be protected by the U.S. Constitution.

"More astonishing than the deputy being fired for clicking the 'Like' button, was the statement by the presiding judge, Judge Raymond Jackson, that 'simply liking a Facebook page' is not even speech," Sarapin said.

In May 2013, the sufficient speech aspect of Jackson's decision was reversed on appeal, declaring that the use of the "Like" button is sufficient speech to be protected by the First Amendment.

The study found that judges do consider the public's opinions when making their decisions, and that survey respondents who were most certain about who would view their "Like" message also believed that those viewers would know what was being communicated.

"In other words, as awareness of one's audience increases, so, too, does the belief that the receivers of the message will understand one's intended meaning," Sarapin said.

Other major findings of the study included:

  • A significant positive association between survey respondents' belief they are communicating a message by clicking "Like" and the belief that message should be protected speech;
  • The more Facebook users believe they are communicating a message by clicking "Like," the more they will believe their audience will understand what they are saying;
  • As compared to Facebook users who do not "Like" political messages, those who do were significantly more likely to believe that their posts should be protected speech;
  • Two-thirds of the respondents agreed on the meaning of a "Like;" and
  • 81.6 percent of respondents believed that "Liking" something is communicating a message.