Public Figures, Private Law: Facebook Oversight Board Upholds Initial Removal of President’s Statements and Presence but Condemns Facebook’s Failure to Articulate Standards or Time Limits


Case No. 2021 -001 – FB – FBR.  Facebook Oversight Board, May 5, 2021.


Facebook is an online social media platform that welcomes all except those determined to have acted badly according to its internal standards, which are described generally in its Terms of Service, with which users promise compliance.   For the errant poster, Facebook may administer rebukes, suspend or terminate service, as well as removing content it deems unsuitable. 

Facebook thus administers and enforces rules of its own making by its own employees.  In light of persistent concerns about this insularity, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg created a board of review, funded by Facebook but administered independently.  

This week the Facebook Oversight Board issued an opinion unsigned by its constellation of prominent international figures that concluded that Facebook did not err in removing statements of then-President Donald J. Trump at the time of and concerning violence that erupted on January 6, 2021 in the nation’s Capitol following a rally of Trump supporters.  

While correct in the immediacy of its removal and ban in light of the circumstances at the time, in which the then-President’s words were perceived to have incited insurrection, the Facebook Oversight Board condemned Facebook’s failure to articulate the reasons and applicable standards supporting the removal and ban and the apparent eternal silencing of Facebook account holder Trump.  

The Facebook Oversight Board sent the case back to Facebook for further proceedings. 

The decision is no small matter and some have deemed it a landmark of equal stature with Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803), the first enunciation by the United States Supreme Court of its reason for being and its power of judicial review.  

This proceeding can be seen as a foundational attempt to provide some structure for review of platform provider’s decisions.  

This matters greatly (“bigly”, some might say) because internet service providers are almost entirely immune from suit for questionable decisions and at the same time the government of the United States cannot intervene to regulate online speech as it is constrained by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.  

Section 230:  the good, the bad, and the sometimes ugly. When widespread public adoption of the internet was in its infancy, Congress sought to inhibit unprotected speech while protecting internet service providers from liability for statements not of their own creation posted on platforms.  Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 preempts federal law and precludes suit against any platform provider who does not create content.  The platform is free to remove or to otherwise police its product without losing those immunities.  

This would leave a user without recourse unless the platform’s actions could be challenged in court in contract, which in limited measure can be done, or through internal review with the platform provider, as is the case in this week’s opinion.

The creation of an international body not necessarily bound by the laws of any one nation cannot be other than a major inflection point in modern law.  Prominent First Amendment authorities question whose law should govern such cases.  

It is far too soon to tell whether this new thing is a good thing, and much is lost in cheers and jeers attaching to personalities, whether that of the former President or of the founder and CEO of Facebook.  What is to the Facebook Oversight Board’s credit is that the reviewing body articulated not only the facts determined but also the standards embraced.  The virtue of its reliance on standards drawn from international human rights declarations, which remain aspirational domestically if not adopted by the United States, awaits further reflection.  

Links to the decision and to other materials are posted below. 

The Facebook Oversight Board opinion:  

2021 001 FB FBR Oversight Board Opinion

The Facebook Oversight Board announcement and overview of its opinion:

Oversight Board Upholds Trump Suspension While Finding Facebook Failed to Apply Proper Penalty

The composition of the Oversight Board:

Facebook Oversight Board

A primer on the creation of the Oversight Board and a reflection on this week’s opinion:

Lawfareblog: About the Facebook Oversight Board

Lawfareblog: It’s Not Over: Oversight Board Trump Decision is Just the Start

Reflections on jurisprudential questions prompted by the Facebook Oversight Board determination:

Volokh Conspiracy: Whose Rules Should Govern How Americans Speak with Other Americans Online

Responses to announcement of the decision and opinion in the mainstream media:

Facebook Oversight Board Tells Zuckerberg He’s the Decider on Trump – The New York Times

Trump Is Still Banned on YouTube. Now the Clock Is Ticking. – WSJ

Facebook Oversight Board’s Trump Decision was Marbury v Madison Moment – CNBC

Two recent cases discussing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996:

Daniels v Alphabet Inc ND Cal 2021

Murphy v Twitter Inc Cal App 2021

Discussions of United States’ positions on international human rights conventions:

Where the United States Stands on 10 International Human Rights Treaties – The Leadership Conference Education Fund

Human Rights and the United States

Public commentary on the controversy submitted to the Facebook Oversight Board:

Facebook Oversight Board Public Comments

From Press Immunity to Impunity: Dissenting Senior U.S. Court of Appeals Judge for D.C. Circuit Suggests Overruling New York Times v. Sullivan

Tah and McClain v. Global Witness Publishing, et al., No. 19-7132 (D.C. Cir.) March 19, 2021.

Defendants Global Witness Publishing and Global Witness (“Global Witness”) published an investigation into bonuses paid to plaintiffs as members of a government entity engaged in negotiating to conclusion an oil lease of unprecedented significance for Liberia. Plaintiffs sued Global Witness for libel as Global Witness’ report on Liberian corruption intimated that the bonuses were bribes.

The United States District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed anti-Slapp proceedings, as federal courts are not bound by the District of Columbia Anti-Slapp Act. This conclusion was affirmed on appeal.

Similarly, the trial court’s dismissal of the libel action because the publication was subject to First Amendment protections. Plaintiffs assertions concerning ‘actual malice’ were without foundation in law, the court found. This conclusion, also affirmed on appeal, generated significant debate among the panelists about the meaning and future of the “actual malice” standard for libel actions concerning public figures, as established in New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).

New York Times v. Sullivan insulated the press from suit for defamation for publication or broadcast of arguably defamatory material unless the publication was made with “actual malice,” either a knowledge that the published information was false or a reckless disregard of its truth or falsity. Id. Subsequent to the decision, it has been noted that meeting the “actual malice” standard is difficult, to say the least.

The present Global Witness affirmation of dismissal of plaintiffs’ claims prompted Senior Circuit Judge Silberman to dissent with some force, taking aim not only at currents in jurisprudence but also offering concerns about the consolidation of power in the media and in the technological giants engaging in distribution and curation of online publications.

The “actual malice” standard is unworkable and in this case has been erroneously interpreted, Judge Silberman declared, causing a rift between the D.C. Circuit and the Second Circuit. The standard for dismissal is “whether a complaint is plausible, not whether it is less plausible than another alternative explanation,” quoting Palin v. New York Times, 940 F.3d 804, 815 (2nd Cir. 2019). Dissent, Slip. op. at 15.

More significantly, New York Times v. Sullivan, Judge Silberman offered, echoing the views of Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, was a policy decision presented as interpretation of the Constitution. While it can be argued that the decision was necessary to protect the press from an avalanche of libel suits intended to discourage coverage of civil rights activities, the opinion itself is not jurisprudentially sound, as it is lacking in grounding in the facts and as it departs from centuries of common law. Id.

The Silberman dissent brooks activist judges no mercy. By “constitutionalizing” policy, the Supreme Court has embraced the standards of communist regimes. Once a principle is established, it will not be willingly relinquished. Dissent, Slip. Op. a 16. If comparing the Supreme Court’s actions to those of regimes antithetical to United States’ freedoms were not enough, Judge Silberman next ventured into the theological realm, remarking that an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court had scolded him for a perceived deficiency in regard for the Court. This chiding, Judge Silberman wrote, caused him to sense that the Court is more concerned with “maintaining a veneer of infallibility” than in correcting errors, no matter how far afield the Court had wandered or stepped on the toes of correlative branches. Id.

However much the New York Times v. Sullivan decision sought to promote the freedom of the press at the time the case was decided, today there is great concern, in Judge SIlberman’s mind, about the consolidation of media within one political point of view. Where it was once feared that press consolidation would induce bland homogeneity, that is hardly the case currently, he has observed, as hasty publication of extreme material, with the assurance no liability will ensue, causes no small amount of harm for which, for public figures, there is likely no redress.

When press powers are aligned with technological giants that curate material in line with the political iew of the press, the threat of suppression of ideas is, in Judge Silberman’s view, too real to overlook. While private technological companies are not bound by the First Amendment, suppression of disfavored views strikes the judge as “un-American.” Dissent, Slip. Op. at 22. Where history instructs that control of communication is an essential first step in establishing authoritarian control, the need to consider these issues is pressing indeed, Judge Silberman has written. Dissent, Slip. Op. at 23.

JustLawful Two Cents’ Worth: JustLawful shares the concerns expressed about media “hive mind” and about the capacity of online gatekeepers to work great mischief. JustLawful would never question the power and potency of the manner in which New York Times v. Sullivan has, rightly or not, accorded the press an immunity ordinarily reserved for the sovereign. Yet JustLawful questions whether overruling New York Times v. Sullivan would cause the press to be any more open to divergent thought. Moreover, if New York Times v. Sullivan were overruled with the view in mind to cause openness to divergence of thought, would that not be as much a policy decision as Judge Silberman’s criticism suggests the case has always been?

Tah and McClain v. Global Witness Publishing, Inc. and Global Witness, No. 19-7132 (D.C. Cir.) March 19, 2021.