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Facebook allowing Trump back would be ‘terrible mistake’: Laurence Tribe

Max Zahn with Andy Serwer
·4 min read
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Former president Donald Trump made the rounds of conservative media on Wednesday, declining to say whether he plans to run for president again. But in his return to the spotlight, Trump lacked one of his largest megaphones: Facebook (FB), where a decision about whether to reactivate his account sits with the company's oversight board.

In a new interview, Laurence Tribe — one of the nation's top constitutional law scholars, who briefly served at the Justice Department during the Obama administration — assailed the purportedly independent oversight board as "a dangerous idea" and warned that allowing Trump back on the platform "would be a terrible mistake."

But Tribe said the board may very well rule in favor of reactivating Trump's account, since welcoming back someone of his cultural prominence would reaffirm the platform as a central institution, akin to a government entity.

"I wouldn't be surprised if they held that it was wrong to kick Trump off of Facebook," says Tribe, a professor emeritus of constitutional law at Harvard University Law School who taught there for more than 50 years. "Because Facebook is sufficiently like the government as a public entity, that they really need to put Trump back."

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 17:  Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies remotely during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled,
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 17: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies remotely during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled, "Breaking the News: Censorship, Suppression, and the 2020 Election" on Capitol Hill on November 17, 2020 in Washington, DC. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is also scheduled to testify remotely. (Photo by Hannah McKay-Pool/Getty Images)

Tribe, an outspoken critic of Trump who believes the Senate erred in acquitting him in its recent impeachment trial, said online platforms should not allow Trump to spread inflammatory or misleading messages.

"Social media platforms, however powerful — like Facebook, like Twitter — have to the extent that they exercise editorial discretion the right and to some extent the social obligation, the moral obligation, to take sources of violent incitement and public falsification off of their platforms," he says.

Speaking with Yahoo Finance, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates on Wednesday took an opposite view, saying that a permanent ban of Trump "would be shame." Such a move would cause "polarization" if users with different political views divide up among various social networks, Gates said.

Facebook indefinitely suspended Trump's accounts on Facebook and Instagram on Jan. 7, the day after Trump supporters attacked the Capitol. Twitter (TWTR) permanently banned Trump on Jan. 8.

The question of whether Facebook should permanently ban Trump has drawn intense interest, garnering 9,000 comments during a public comment period. Proponents of a permanent ban include former first lady Michelle Obama and former Facebook security chief Alex Stamos; while skeptics of the potential move include German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Facebook sent the decision last month to its newly formed oversight board, a panel of judges made up of experts and public figures from around the globe. The board was given 90 days to decide on the ban.

Members of the board earn six-figure salaries paid by an independent trust seeded with $130 million by Facebook, raising questions about whether the board will be truly independent, the New Yorker reported last week.

Tribe sharply criticized the oversight board, saying "it creates the illusion of independence where there is no independence."

Tribe spoke to Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer in an episode of “Influencers with Andy Serwer,” a weekly interview series with leaders in business, politics, and entertainment.

Over his career, Tribe argued 35 cases before the Supreme Court and wrote a number of books, most recently "To End a Presidency: The Power of Impeachment," which he co-authored with Georgetown University Law Professor Joshua Matz.

Laurence Tribe, professor emeritus at Harvard Law School, speaks with Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer on
Laurence Tribe, professor emeritus at Harvard Law School, speaks with Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer on "Influencers with Andy Serwer."

Tribe's list of former students includes top figures on both sides of the aisle: former President Barack Obama, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), and House Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), the lead House impeachment manager who made the case against Trump.

Speaking with Yahoo Finance, Tribe cited his membership with a group of advocates that bills itself the ""Real Facebook Oversight Board," which issues feedback on content moderation decisions put forth by the company.

He noted that the organization looks at Facebook's policies "from a distance — and with full independence."

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