That’s exactly what the board should do. Trump is an important public figure, no matter how many people despise him. It was one thing to temporarily ban him from social media during the tumultuous days following the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Doing so helped ensure that Trump could not mobilize his followers to further violence that could hinder or mar President Biden’s inauguration. That danger has now passed, and keeping the former president from commenting on public affairs would only serve to suppress free speech. That’s not something Facebook, or any social media platform, should do.
Facebook offers no clear rationale for why the ban has persisted. It referred the ban to the board for its determination on Jan. 21, the day after the inauguration. That announcement notes the “extraordinary circumstances” surrounding the issuance of its indefinite ban on Jan. 7. If the ban is upheld, Facebook will be committing itself to a policy of banning individuals or entities that might plausibly encourage political violence. That policy would inevitably lead the company down the rabbit hole of assessing which political speech might motivate people to act unlawfully, even if the speaker may not even be aware of the risk. That would make Facebook exactly what its critics say it already is: a global entity that polices political speech.
Imagine if Facebook had been around in the pre-Civil War period. Abolitionist rhetoric regularly decried enslavers and the South in harsh terms. Leading politicians in the North increasingly used language that infuriated the South. Abraham Lincoln’s famous “House Divided” speech, in which he said that that Union could not stand as half-slave and half-free, was assailed as fomenting national breakup. Slavery’s defenders pointed to John Brown’s attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859, which Brown had hoped would lead enslaved people to revolt using the weapons, as proof that the rhetoric from Lincoln and others encouraged violence. Would Facebook have denied the anti-slavery movement space on its platform?
If that example seems too far removed, consider more recent examples that suggest a slippery slope for Facebook’s policy: Was the incendiary rhetoric many in the anti-Trump resistance used responsible for the attempted murder of Republican members of Congress at a 2017 baseball practice by a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)? Were statements by Democratic leaders last summer that seemed to condone riots responsible for the continuing turmoil that lasted for months? What should happen if some leftists take the casual use of the word “revolution” on the left literally?
Political rhetoric often includes violent metaphor. Words like “fight,” “struggle” or even “revolution” are commonplace and always have been in American discourse. Ballots are meant to replace bullets, but they can’t erase the deep fears and hatred that give rise to political conflict to begin with. Allowing people to openly express their opinions is key to reducing political violence; speech and elections channel those passions into peaceful conflict resolution. Suppressing them may lead to a false sense of concord, but inevitably leads to even more violent eruptions.
Facebook’s Oversight Board has an opportunity to defend the American heritage of free speech. It should seize the moment and remove Trump’s indefinite ban. That, not attempts to restrict political rhetoric, is the best way to defend our democracy’s foundations.