let users share this editorial? We’ll see. The social-media giant seems to have declared Kyle Rittenhouse’s fatal shooting of two people amid riots in Kenosha, Wis., a mass murder. Mr. Rittenhouse’s lawyer says his client was attacked and acted in self-defense, but Facebook has banned any “praise and support” for him on the site, including links to contribute to his legal representation. Searches for his name on the platform also come up empty.
This is an alarming resort to censorship on an issue of public concern by a company that has advertised its support for First Amendment values. Even more than most political controls on content, this blackout is troubling because it seems targeted at users’ expectation of freedom of speech and Mr. Rittenhouse’s right to due process.
By taking down links to pay Mr. Rittenhouse’s legal fees, the company is interfering with his ability to raise money for his defense in a way other criminal defendants might. The fact that the platform may only be used to declare Mr. Rittenhouse’s guilt, but not his innocence—though lawyers say the self-defense argument is plausible—could prejudice a jury pool in the high-profile case. One of America’s most powerful companies is effectively giving its official imprimatur to Wisconsin prosecutors’ case against a specific defendant.
Defending Mr. Rittenhouse’s right to a fair hearing, and the public’s right to see information about the shooting, is not a defense of the teen’s actions. The untrained minor exercised terrible judgment in leaving his hometown to act as an amateur police officer amid the looting and arson in Kenosha, and he has been charged with illegal possession of a dangerous weapon.
Yet Facebook is lumping Mr. Rittenhouse with terrorist extremists like the 2016 Orlando or 2019 El Paso mass shooters. Video evidence shows this was a tangled situation. Mr. Rittenhouse is seen fleeing an angry crowd on foot, and someone fired a gunshot in the air before Mr. Rittenhouse turned and opened fire at his closest pursuer. Later on someone appears to try to hit him with a skateboard while he is on the ground, and another man approaches him carrying a pistol. We are still learning details, but these aren’t the usual circumstances for first-degree murder convictions.
Mr. Rittenhouse’s guilt or innocence will be decided in court, but the case is dividing the public and prompting commentary by both presidential candidates. Facebook’s heavy-handed blackout flies in the face of CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s commitments last year—which we have defended—that the company would protect free expression and not yield to political demands to suppress speech.
Facebook naturally wants to dissociate itself from street violence, but in this case it has made a mistake. It can continue to block incitements to violence, and shut down groups plotting violence, without throwing itself into a murky and politicized criminal case. Prejudging guilt and moving against a person’s legal defense is a bad look for a company that claims to be committed to civil liberties. Voters, and their representatives, will notice.
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Appeared in the September 5, 2020, print edition.