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Facebook restores wedding photo of gay couple; man decries harassment

Bishop Erik Swope-Wise, right, and his husband Kelsey Swope-Wise stand before a unity candle on their wedding day on April 28, 2012. The photo was inadvertently removed from Facebook by the site after a complaint was made about the image.
Bishop Erik Swope-Wise, right, and his husband Kelsey Swope-Wise stand before a unity candle on their wedding day on April 28, 2012. The photo was inadvertently removed from Facebook by the site after a complaint was made about the image.Bishop Erik Swope-Wise

A gay man whose wedding photo was pulled from Facebook after an anonymous complaint believes the social network’s reporting policy allows for a "subversive" type of harassment.

The photo of Pastor Kelsey Swope-Wise, 37, and his husband, Bishop Erik Swope-Wise, 49, of Elgin, Ill., was taken down from the Gay Marriage USA Facebook page on Monday after someone lodged a complaint with Facebook. The administrator of the page, Murray Lipp, said Facebook informed him on Monday that the image of the biracial couple standing together at their April 28, 2012, wedding "violates policies and community standards."

"It’s subversive, the type of harassment, meaning that you can do it anonymously," Erik Swope-Wise, who founded a local chapter of The Affirming Pentecostal Church International, told NBC News on Tuesday. “So you can throw the rock and hide your hand. There’s no accountability for somebody’s actions. So somebody could make that accusation, ‘Well this picture’s offensive.’ Well we don’t know who said that, so how can we even go back to them and say, ‘Why is this offensive? Tell me why it’s offensive.’”

Facebook restored the photo on Tuesday and apologized to Lipp, who told NBC News that the social networking site had initially blocked his ability to post for one week in addition to taking down the photo. This wasn’t the first time he has had problems with posts being reported.

“Sadly, Facebook's reporting system is so flawed that it allows people against equality to attack & target pages like mine and Facebook almost ALWAYS sides with those who complain. I was given no opportunity to respond or say anything … ,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Erik Swope-Wise said Lipp asked to post the image last weekend. He initially was pleasantly surprised by the outpouring of support in comments and likes, but then the messages turned “hateful” and “condescending.” Some who made comments were upset because the men are Pentacostal, which traditionally rejects same-sex marriage, though their church does not.

Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes told NBC News in an email that the photo did not violate their “policies or community standards and was removed in error. The image has been restored and we apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused." A team reviews hundreds of thousands of reports every week, and occasionally mistakes are made, he said.

“I accept that … we’re all subject to human error,” Erik Swope-Wise said. “However the process by which Facebook uses to make those determinations is probably a little too mechanical. When a person puts an opposition to a post … it’s a list of choices that you choose to describe why this is offensive or inappropriate but there gives no validation, you know, as to what that really is.”

What might be offensive to one group may not be to another, and the term “offensive” was also “too general,” he added. “I think the scrutiny of it needs to be a little more clear before they take such harsh action.”

Rich Ferraro, a spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), said he has seen this happen before but that Facebook has always taken quick action.

“More often than not reporting tools on sites like Facebook are used positively to report anti-LGBT bullying or hate speech. Unfortunately, anti-LGBT users have also used these tools to target LGBT community members -- but when GLAAD has brought incidents like this to Facebook, they have always immediately restored the content,” he wrote to NBC News in an email.

Issues can arise when social networking sites wade into heated debates.

"This is involving a lot of judgment calls right, like what is hate speech and what is a political statement. It's extraordinary difficult some times," said Rebecca Jeschke, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for the public’s digital rights.

She said best practices would be to have a “really clear procedure for contesting any kind of take down and for that to be followed consistently.”

"Lots of activists use these forums for their activism and so if you censor their activity through Facebook then you're functionally censoring their speech activity on the Internet,” she said. “Facebook isn’t like a state government. It can restrict speech in any way it wants, but sometimes the ramifications are the same."