In February 2016, Facebook rolled out “Reactions,” a new feature that allowed users to do more than just “like” a post, but express five other emotions, including “love,” “haha,” “wow,” “sad” and “angry.”
But other popular social media platforms, such as Instagram and Twitter, still only have one button for instantly reacting to others’ content: the heart-shaped “like” button. And what exactly “liking” a photo on Instagram means is now the subject of fierce debate in two communities.
First, in Albany, California, near San Francisco, the school district is being sued by four high school students who claim the school unfairly impeded their First Amendment rights by suspending them for liking racist posts about fellow black students.
According to The Associated Press, these posts included images of black students and a black coach, with nooses drawn around their necks, as well as pictures of black students next to an ape. However, lawyers for the four suspended students say that just because they “liked” or commented on the posts does not mean they should be treated the same way as the person who actually posted the content.
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“‘Likes’ are ambiguous in that they could be saying, ‘This is funny,’ ‘I agree with it,’ or ‘I don’t agree, but I want to stand up for your right to say it’,” Eugene Volokh, who teaches free speech law at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the AP.
“People of this age click “like” to pretty much everything, and they’ll respond in grunts and single syllables to pretty much anything,” one of the students’ lawyers argued.
Critics, on the other hand, say the lawsuit is merely an attempt to excuse hate speech.
“This is a hate crime,” a parent told CBS San Francisco. “You don’t have a First Amendment right to promote a hate crime against a group of people based on their skin color.”
In a statement, the district said it “takes great care to ensure that our students feel safe at school, and we are committed to providing an inclusive and respectful learning environment for all of our students. The district intends to defend this commitment and its conduct within the court system.”
In Trenton, Ohio, meanwhile, Zachary Bowlin, a middle school student, was suspended for 10 days after he “liked” an Instagram post of a airsoft BB gun with the caption, “ready,” according to local media reports.
“I was livid, I mean, I’m sitting here thinking ‘you just suspended him for ten days for liking a picture of a gun on a social media site’,” Bowlin’s father, Marty told Fox 19. “He never shared, he never commented, he never made a threatening post … just liked it.”
Initially, the school district defended its decision, telling Fox 19 that it has a “zero tolerance” policy for any behavior that “potentially endangers the health and safety of students or adversely affects the educational process,” even if that behavior takes place outside of school, including “liking” any content.
However, WCHM reports that the school later agreed to life the suspension after speaking with Bowlin’s parents.
According to the National Coalition Against Censorship, the Supreme Court has traditionally granted public school systems wide latitude in choosing how to balance free speech concerns with maintaining a safe academic environment. And in the past, the Justice Department has argued that “retweets” on Twitter constituted a tacit endorsement of the message being retweeted, according to Fortune.