By Deepa Seetharaman
Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg told a packed room of employees Friday that the company should embrace diverse views, but expressed frustration that a senior executive had attended Judge Brett Kavanaugh's highly politicized hearing last week, according to a person familiar with the remarks.
Mr. Zuckerberg spoke at a town hall to address outrage among many employees that Facebook's public policy chief, Joel Kaplan, appeared at the hearing in support of his longtime friend, Judge Kavanaugh, who had been accused of sexual assault.
In the week since the hearing, hundreds of Facebook employees complained on internal message boards that Mr. Kaplan's appearance at the hearing came at a time when Facebook officials have been cautioning employees to avoid overt political commentary. Other employees, particularly women, said that Mr. Kaplan's appearance sent the wrong message to female employees about the way executives view the broader debate about sexual assault and women in the workplace.
Friday's town hall was attended by more than 600 employees, with many more dialed in from offices around the world, the person said. Some Facebook employees shared their experiences as survivors of sexual assault, and the mood was often intense.
In their remarks to employees, Mr. Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said it was important that Facebook be a place where diverse political and social views aren't only tolerated but supported. They condemned sexual assault of any kind, said the person familiar with the remarks.
But the two executives also expressed frustration that Mr. Kaplan had injected Facebook -- which has been under intense scrutiny by regulators world-wide for its power to shape public discourse -- into an unrelated political controversy, according to the person. Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg noted that it was particularly problematic given his high profile within the company as its head of global policy.
Mr. Kaplan, who previously apologized to his colleagues for inadvertently causing an internal controversy, also spoke briefly on Friday via videoconference from Washington, D.C., according to the person. He noted that loyalty to friends such as Judge Kavanaugh was one of his core values, the person said.
When asked if he regretted going, Mr. Kaplan said it was critical to stand by friends and couldn't say whether he would have done things differently. Instead, he said he regretted not informing Ms. Sandberg and other senior officials about his plans, said the person familiar with the meeting.
Mr. Kaplan's appearance last week sparked a roiling internal discussion within the company that has drawn hundreds of comments from employees and became a test for how company executives felt about the #MeToo movement, Trump-era politics and freedom of speech and expression, people familiar with the matter say. The controversy comes at a time of greater uncertainty within Facebook employees, where morale is shaky after two years of controversies, according to current and former employees.
In the internal threads about Mr. Kaplan's decision, employees questioned why a senior executive would risk causing more controversy for Facebook, which has been under fire for a host of issues, including misinformation, foreign manipulation and violent content. Some asked why Mr. Kaplan hadn't been fired.
Ms. Sandberg has previously posted an internal message calling Mr. Kaplan's appearance at the hearing "a mistake."
Other senior executives, including Andrew Bosworth, and employees questioned why Facebook employees were spending so much time debating issues out of their control, such as the Supreme Court nomination process. Mr. Bosworth and other employees argued they should focus more on internal issues, including the fallout from the massive security breach disclosed last week, people familiar with the internal discussions said.
Soon after the Facebook town hall ended, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said in a floor speech that she would vote in support of Judge Kavanaugh. Her decision ensured that Judge Kavanaugh would have the support needed to be confirmed this weekend.
Write to Deepa Seetharaman at Deepa.Seetharaman@wsj.com