Facebook will bar protesters from organizing anti-quarantine rallies that violate states’ social distancing rules, the company said on Monday.
The decision has led to blowback from conservative lawmakers and civil liberties advocates, who say that it sets a dangerous precedent by clamping down on free speech and individuals’ right to protest.
Protests against coronavirus-inspired restrictions, many of them engineered by far-right activists, have popped up in state capitols from Salem, Ore., to Augusta, Maine in recent days. Most have been orchestrated in Facebook groups that count tens of thousands of members.
Facebook told Recode on Monday that the company was removing posts that were being used to organize protests in California, New Jersey and Nebraska, and will continue to do so in states where the demonstrations would violate state-at-home orders.
“Events that defy government’s guidance on social distancing aren’t allowed on Facebook,” a company spokesperson said.
The move immediately drew criticism from Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who expressed concern that the tech platform was cracking down on dissenting views. Donald Trump, Jr., the president’s son, accused Facebook of “colluding with state governments to quash peoples free speech.”
Though large public gatherings may present a public health hazard, Facebook “should not be censoring political speech online,” Vera Eidelman, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, told Politico. “This is especially true now, when questions of when and how to reopen the country are among the central political questions.”
Other advocates have questioned why Facebook is cracking down on demonstrations, rather than leaving it to the police to take action against illegal gatherings.
“Whether a protest is lawful or unlawful is a decision for government authorities to make on the ground,” David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, told the Guardian.