Higher Education

OU professor plays role in Facebook ban of Trump

May 6, 2021

Ray Carter

A University of Oklahoma law professor who has argued that “the right to hold opinions without interference” includes protection against “penalization for one’s opinions” is a member of the Facebook Oversight Board that has upheld the platform’s suspension of former President Donald Trump.

In January, Facebook banned Trump from the platform, saying a post made by the president regarding the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol violated Facebook’s standards.

In a video posted on Facebook and Instagram on Jan. 6, Trump referred to the 2020 presidential election as one that was “stolen from us,” but told protestors and those involved in rioting that “you have to go home now. We have to have peace. We have to have law and order. We have to respect our great people in law and order. We don’t want anybody hurt.”

This week, Facebook’s Oversight Board, which has 20 members, upheld Facebook’s decision on January 7, 2021, “to restrict then-President Donald Trump’s access to posting content on his Facebook page and Instagram account.”

The board concluded that Trump’s comments “violated Facebook’s rules prohibiting praise or support of people engaged in violence.”

The board also declared that it was “not appropriate for Facebook to impose the indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension,” saying the social-media giant’s normal penalties “include removing the violating content, imposing a time-bound period of suspension, or permanently disabling the page and account.”

The board urged Facebook to “justify a proportionate response that is consistent with the rules that are applied to other users of its platform” within six months.

An editorial in The Wall Street Journal noted that the Facebook Oversight Board “contains only two who clearly lean to the right: former federal judge Michael McConnell and anti-Trump libertarian John Samples. The others are varying degrees of center-left to further left.”

An editorial in the New York Post described the board as a “far left leaning, international commission” filled with individuals who have been vocal critics of Trump, citing anti-Trump comments previously made by six members of the board.

Evelyn Aswad, the Herman G. Kaiser Chair in International Law at the University of Oklahoma, is among the 20 members of the Facebook Oversight Board.

In her academic work, Aswad has focused on how social-media entities like Facebook may suppress free speech. The abstract for one 2020 article written by Aswad notes it focuses on “whether international human rights law protects against intrusions on the inner sanctum of one’s mind, particularly with respect to the business models of global platforms such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google.” That article concluded that “the right to hold opinions without interference includes protection against disclosure of one’s opinions, manipulation in the forming and holding of opinions, and penalization for one’s opinions.”

The abstract for another Aswad article published in 2020 notes that “overreacting” by social media companies “can undermine human rights, including freedom of expression.”

“The business operations of global social media platforms frequently intersect with this latter concern because of a spike in the adoption of national laws that ban ‘fake news’ as well as their own platform policies to tackle false information,” the article abstract notes.

“The rallying cry for governments to ‘do something’ about false information is being used to justify a proliferation of ‘fake news’ laws that improperly empower governments to control discourse, including by enlisting social media companies to help implement these speech codes,” Aswad wrote.

The Facebook Oversight Board did not make public how members voted on Trump’s suspension, but the group announced there was a split among members with some board members wanting Facebook to “ensure that users who seek reinstatement after suspension recognize their wrongdoing and commit to observing the rules in the future.”

The statement did not indicate any members objected to Facebook’s ban of Trump.

Aswad did not respond to a request for comment.