SAN FRANCISCO — A Facebook-appointed panel of journalists, activists and lawyers ruled on Wednesday to uphold the social network’s ban of former President Donald J. Trump, ending any immediate return by Mr. Trump to mainstream social media and renewing a debate about tech power over online speech.
Facebook’s Oversight Board, which acts as a quasi-court to deliberate the company’s content decisions, said the social network was right to bar Mr. Trump after he used the site to foment an insurrection in Washington in January. The panel said the ongoing risk of violence “justified” the suspension.
But the board also said that Facebook’s penalty of an indefinite suspension was “not appropriate,” and that the company should apply a “defined penalty.” The board gave Facebook six months to make its final decision on Mr. Trump’s account status.
“Our sole job is to hold this extremely powerful organization, Facebook, to be held accountable,” Michael McConnell, co-chair of the Oversight Board, said on a call with reporters. The decision “did not meet these standards,” he said.
Twitter and YouTube had also cut off Mr. Trump in January after the insurrection at the Capitol building, saying the risk of harm and the potential for violence that he created was too great.
But while Mr. Trump’s Facebook account remains suspended for now, it does not mean that he will not be able to return to the social network at all once the company reviews its action. On Tuesday, Mr. Trump had unveiled a new site, “From the desk of Donald J. Trump,” to communicate with his supporters. It looked much like a Twitter feed, complete with posts written by Mr. Trump that could be shared on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Mr. Trump’s continuing suspension from Facebook gave conservatives, who have long accused the social media companies of suppressing right-wing voices, new fuel against the platforms. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, has testified in Congress several times in recent years about whether the social network has shown bias against conservative political views. He has denied it.
In a tweet, the Republican members of the House judiciary committee said of the board’s decision, “Pathetic.”
Mr. Zuckerberg has said that he does not wish his company to be “the arbiter of truth” in social discourse, Facebook has become increasingly active about the kinds of content it allows. To prevent the spread of misinformation, the company has cracked down on QAnon conspiracy theory groups, election falsehoods and anti-vaccination content in recent months, before culminating in the blocking of Mr. Trump in January.
“This case has dramatic implications for the future of speech online because the public and other platforms are looking at how the oversight board will handle what is a difficult controversy that will arise again around the world,” said Nate Persily, a professor at Stanford University’s law school.
He added, “President Trump has pushed the envelope about what is permissible speech on these platforms and he has set the outer limits such that if you are unwilling to go after him, you are allowing a large amount of incitement and hate speech and disinformation online that others are going to propagate.”
In a statement, Facebook said it was “pleased” that the board recognized that its barring of Mr. Trump in January was justified. The company added that it would consider the ruling and “determine an action that is clear and proportionate.”
Mr. Trump’s case is the most prominent that the Facebook Oversight Board, which was conceived in 2018, has handled. The board, which is made up of 20 journalists, activists and former politicians, reviews and adjudicates the company’s most contested content moderation decisions. Mr. Zuckerberg has repeatedly referred to it as the “Facebook Supreme Court.”
But while the panel is positioned as independent, it was founded and funded by Facebook and has no legal or enforcement authority. Critics have been skeptical of the board’s autonomy and have said it gives Facebook the ability to punt on difficult decisions.