Voltaire, the 18th century French writer-philosopher, preferred an enlightened aristocracy to democracy yet he eloquently embraced one of the latter’s most sacred tenets, the right to free speech.
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” he is said to have responded to his antagonists.
The Facebook Oversight Board would be wise to adopt Voltaire’s sagacious posture today when deciding whether to lift or extend the ban on former President Donald Trump’s access to Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram.
The free speech clause of the First Amendment is not absolute, though it is nearly so. Only twice has the Supreme Court limited the scope of free speech:
• In a 1919 case involving a member of the American Socialist Party urging citizens to disobey the military draft during World War I, conduct deemed a clear and present danger under the Espionage Act. His speech was compared to falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater.
• In a 1969 case limiting banned speech to language directed at and likely to incite imminent lawless action such as a riot.
Facebook blocked Trump one day after his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in a bloody response to the president’s same day rally call for Congress to reject the certified results of the 2020 election he lost.
Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube soon took similar action, denying the volatile Trump his favorite platforms for juicing his supporters and assailing his political adversaries and others he considered enemies.
Social media networks suspended Trump’s accounts on the ground he undermined the peaceful and lawful transition of presidential power to Democrat Joe Biden. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called the Trump rally on Jan. 6 followed by the Capitol siege “shocking events.”
And so they were. But no determination had been made about the legality of his speech. The social media ban appeared a warranted penalty for Trump’s big lie insistence the election had been stolen from him and inciting his followers to cause Congress to reject Biden’s victory.
Facebook established its 20-member outside oversight board in May 2020 to settle challenges to the social media giant’s standards. Eight findings have been made in minor cases since January. The board overturned six Facebook decisions and upheld two of them.
Almost everybody has had something to say about the Trump case. His comments at the rally preceding the Capitol siege egged on his supporters. There was no shortage of inflammatory language. Facebook’s action met its standards for prohibited speech.
But the decision to block a former president’s access to Facebook and Instagram has run its course. A permanent ban raises uncomfortable questions about just how free our right to speech really is in America.
Voltaire had the right answer.