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Florida judges banned from 'friending' lawyers on Facebook

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Florida judges are barred from becoming Facebook friends with local lawyers because the online relation implies they're BFFs in RL, the Sunshine State's legal ethics board has decided.

In November, the Florida Supreme Court's Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee determined that judges cannot include lawyers as friends on certain social network sites because the term "friends" conveys the traditional meaning of close affection.

The Committee said listing lawyers as "friends" is a violation of one of Florida's Code of Judicial Conduct canon rules that states a judge may not "convey or permit others to convey they are in a special position to influence the judge."

It stated that the issue at hand isn't whether the lawyer is actually in a position to influence the judge, but that others on the internet may see the listing as a true declaration of friendship.

"While judges cannot isolate themselves entirely from the real world and cannot be expected to avoid all friendships outside of their judicial responsibilities, some restrictions upon a judge's conduct are inherent to the office," the committee wrote.

As noted in WSJ law blog the oddness of the ruling lies in the rapid decay of the meaning of "friend" in the context of a social network. When websites like Facebook and MySpace were in their infancy, adding a "friend" usually implied a pre-existing at-least-semi-close relationship. Today, "friending" is an adjective on the web and no more intimate than a handshake.

Those sentiments were expressed by the minority opinion of the committee:

The minority concludes that social networking sites have become so ubiquitous that the term "friend" on these pages does not convey the same meaning that it did in the pre-internet age; that today, the term "friend" on social networking sites merely conveys the message that a person so identified is a contact or acquaintance; and that such an identification does not convey that a person is a "friend" in the traditional sense.

Trust Florida to make this an issue, but "friend" is a loaded bit of lexicon to be making due with. And it's clearly stuck in the public consciousness. Hell, "unfriend" was the New Oxford American Dictionary's 2009 word of the year. We're already passing on meta uses of the word. ®

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