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Blogging Ethics II

Blogging Ethics II

Is the blogger responsible for defamatory posts?

by

Q. Blogs provide an open forum for readers' comments. Is the blogger responsible for encouraging slander and other irresponsible contributions?

A. Web logs are at the frontiers of ethical thought, since they are a relatively new medium which blur the boundaries between existing media such as newspapers, diaries, and so on.

Yet in many ways blogs are not new but are really a throwback. The early "broadsheets" such as the Tatler and Spectator of Addison and Steele in the early 18th century were expressions of the personal views of the authors on a wide variety of everyday topics of current interest; they were very widely read and distributed and served as the catalyst and basis for innumerable conversations and discussions. The very name "Tatler" suggests that the publishers were aware of the sheets' potential for fostering gossip.

Many Jewish sources show a keen sensitivity for the problem of encouraging or inciting gossip. The Talmud tells us that the great Jewish sage and leader Rabbi Yehuda the Nasi (Prince) commented on the beautiful penmanship in the book of Psalms from which he was teaching. The student who brought the book felt obliged to mention, "I didn't write it, rather Rabbi Yehuda Chaita wrote it." The teacher replied, "Desist from such slander!" (1)

The explanation, as elaborated by Maimonides, is that opening up a discussion of someone's abilities in a public forum, even to praise him, is almost certain to arouse negative reactions as well, since almost everyone has detractors as well as admirers.

The ethical lesson of this prohibition is particularly relevant in the case of private-life blogs. Rabbi Yehuda Chaita (literally, "the tailor") was an unassuming scholar; he had no interest in being a topic of discussion, certainly not at the expense of becoming an object of ridicule. For this reason neighbors, friends, and co-workers are not suitable topics of discussion on blogs.

However, we have to make a suitable exception in the case of public figures or aspects of a person's life which are intentionally opened to the public. When someone runs for public office, he surely expects, even wants, others to openly discuss his qualifications for office, whether positive or negative. Likewise, if someone makes a public speech or publishes something it is fair to assume that he is willing to have his ideas weighed in the "court of public opinion", with its self-appointed lawyers for defense and prosecution alike. Any serious scholar is grateful for the insights gleaned from critics.

Certainly the Jewish Ethicist is delighted to have current or archived columns mentioned on any blog to which my ideas might make a contribution. This is not despite the potential for negative reactions but precisely because of it, for the only way to improve and grow is to be open to public discussion and criticism. This is a good opportunity for me to thank the many readers who are constantly writing me with both positive and negative criticism of my columns. Unfortunately I am unable to respond to all my mail, but be reassured that I do read all the letters I receive.

Blogs are not an appropriate forum for mentioning the virtues and foibles of unassuming people we encounter in everyday life. These people don't seek our praise and are justifiably mortified to be criticized in the public square of cyberspace. However, public figures must, and generally do, reconcile themselves to the fact that their message will be lacking in consistency and impact if they don't open it to public debate. Bloggers may generally assume that these individuals are willing to be discussed on blogs as long as basic standards of journalistic ethics are maintained, including attribution of facts, right to make a reply, and so on.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 164b. (2) Maimonides commentary on Mishnah Avot 1:16; Chafetz Chaim I 9:1.

Send your queries about ethics in the workplace to jewishethicist@aish.com

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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of Aish.com and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem at www.besr.org.

Published: September 3, 2005


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Visitor Comments: 3

(3) Meylekh Viswanath, September 18, 2005 12:00 AM

Rabbis and public discussion

What would you say about pulpit rabbis? Would you say that they would fall into the category that you describe as:-- if someone makes a public speech or publishes something it is fair to assume that he is willing to have his ideas weighed in the "court of public opinion" -- Would a sermon by a rabbi in a shul count as a "public speech?"

Another example. A particular rabbi gives a speech in a shul and makes what I believe are inappropriate, and, in my opinion, racist comments. Can this be discussed in public, e.g. on a website?

I am wondering about how one would go about the khakira, since there is a public interest here. Do we want "racist" ideas promulgated by people who have a greater likelihood of influencing others? Would this permit discussion of this issue in public?

A third example. A database of tradesmen maintained by somebody in our community allows individuals to post only favorable posts, but not unfavorable posts. Would a tradesman be a "public figure" for the purposes of our discussion? I believe that only allowing for favorable posts misleads people about the quality of the tradesmen involved. The individuals involved are selling their services/goods publicly and it is in the public interest to be allowed to discuss how good _and_ how bad they are.

(2) Anonymous, September 15, 2005 12:00 AM

What about groups?

I am more concerned with the loshon hora often seen on blogs against entire groups of Jews (ultra-Orthodox, modern Orthodox, Satmar or Lubavitch,, kollel members...) It appears to me that this is a lot more problematic, and I would be interested in what you have to say about that.

(1) Anonymous, September 5, 2005 12:00 AM

great distinction

The distinction made between public figures and everyday people we live with is a very good one. It seems quite simple, yet it offers a very understable view of what kind of comments might be allowed, and about whom.

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