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NEW YORK, February 11, 2021—Following Facebook’s announcement that its Oversight Board would review the company’s decision to suspend Trump from its platform, and in response to the Oversight Board’s call for public comment, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University today urged the board to delay ruling on the question of Trump’s suspension until Facebook commissions an independent study into how the company’s platform may have contributed to the events of January 6th.  

“It doesn’t make sense for the Oversight Board to address the question of Trump’s suspension without more information about how Facebook’s platform-design decisions may have contributed to the circumstances that made Trump’s speech so dangerous,” said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute. “Those decisions determine which speech proliferates on Facebook’s platform, how quickly it spreads, who sees it, and in what context they see it. It would be a mistake for the Oversight Board to treat those design decisions as a given. It’s those decisions that warrant the most scrutiny.”  

After Facebook asked the Oversight Board to review the suspension of former President Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts, the board invited public comment on the issue. The Knight Institute’s submission argues that Facebook should “adopt a heavy presumption in favor of leaving political speech up, in keeping with the principle that ‘debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.’” 

It also argues, however, that the board should not address the question of whether Facebook was justified in suspending Trump until Facebook commissions an independent investigation into the ways in which its design decisions may have contributed to the events of January 6th. The submission explains, “Trump’s statements on and off social media in the days leading up to January 6 were certainly inflammatory and dangerous, but part of what made them so dangerous is that, for months before that day, many Americans had been exposed to staggering amounts of sensational misinformation about the election on Facebook’s platform, shunted into echo chambers by Facebook’s algorithms, and insulated from counter-speech by Facebook’s architecture.”  

“We don’t want to see the Oversight Board used as a fig leaf for Facebook’s failures,” said Katy Glenn Bass, research director at the Knight First Amendment Institute. “The fundamental problem is that content-moderation decisions can’t be separated from the design decisions that Facebook has placed off limits for review by the board.”  

Read the Knight Institute’s submission here: https://knightcolumbia.org/documents/submission-to-facebook-oversight-board-2-11-2021  

In 2017, the Knight Institute filed a lawsuit in federal court against President Trump and his aides for blocking seven people from the @realDonaldTrump Twitter account based on their criticism of his presidency and policies. The district court ruled in May 2018 that the president’s Twitter account constitutes a “public forum” under the First Amendment and that the president is therefore barred from blocking speakers from that account on the basis of viewpoint. A unanimous three-judge panel of the Second Circuit affirmed that ruling in July 2019, and in March of last year, the Second Circuit rejected a request by the Trump administration for a full-court review of that ruling. In August 2020, the Trump administration petitioned the Court to review that decision. Although the Trump administration later conceded that the case had become moot, the Court has not yet ruled on the petition. Read more about the case here: https://knightcolumbia.org/cases/knight-institute-v-trump

About the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University The Knight First Amendment Institute defends the freedoms of speech and the press in the digital age through strategic litigation, research, and public education. It promotes a system of free expression that is open and inclusive, that broadens and elevates public discourse, and that fosters creativity, accountability, and effective self-government. www.knightcolumbia.org