It was recently reported that famed singer Courtney Love (widow of 90’s musician Kurt Cobain) is being sued for some offensive comments she made about her former fashion designer, Dawn Simorangkir, who owns the “Boudoir Queen” fashion line.
The lawsuit came on the heels of a similar one that ended in late January, which involved Love as a defendant in a two-week trial in a defamation case. She had been sued by her former lawyer, Rhonda Holmes, for a questionably offensive tweet that Love had posted on Twitter in 2010, which read that she “was… devastated when rhonda holmes esq of san diego was bought off.” By “bought off,” Love had implied that Holmes had taken a bribe. Although the disparaging Tweet was quickly deleted a few minutes after being posted, Holmes charged Love for libel to the tune of $8 million for the “Twibel” attack.
It was the first time that libel via Twitter was brought to trial under jury.
A quick recap: libel is defamation that is written or published; slander is defamation that is spoken. Defamation claims are nothing new (especially among celebrities), but this case was newsworthy because it was the first time that libel via Twitter was brought to trial under jury. Love was ultimately acquitted of the defamation charge because Holmes’ lawyers weren’t able to sufficiently prove that Love was aware of the true facts before she published the Tweet. While listening to the trial, I discovered a newfound appreciation for Judaism’s laws of lashon hara, derogatory speech.
But It’s True!
It was proven that Holmes did not take a bribe, so Love’s Tweet was, in fact, false. Yet during the trial, Love’s lawyers argued that the Tweet was simply Love’s personal opinion, not a fact. Love also claimed she had meant for the tweet to be private – a direct message to only two reporters she quoted – and that she deleted the post shortly afterward writing it. Plus, they stressed to the jury, it was all hyperbole. In their closing statements, the defending lawyers left the audience with the following question: why should the legal standards of a tweet be commensurate with a written newspaper or magazine if the Internet is blatantly saturated with exaggeration and slang?
In Judaism these distinctions do not exist. In fact, the Jewish laws of lashon hara exist precisely to protect us from such a scenario. These laws, which forbid any kind of libel, prohibit us from speaking negatively about someone else, even if it’s true. Lashon hara can be based on opinion or fact, written or spoken – in any format. Lashon hara retains its status whether it was Tweeted to 90,000 followers or merely sent to two reporters. It’s lashon hara even if you whisper it to a friend. It’s Lashon hara even if it was exaggerated hyperbole or slang. It’s lashon hara even if it was deleted immediately afterwards.
While listening to the lawyers interview and cross-examine the witnesses, I was reminded of a famous Jewish parable.
A chronic gossiper goes to a rabbi and asks for advice on how to atone for his incessant gossip. After listening to him, the Rabbi orders the man to take a feather pillow and climb to the top of a mountain. “When you get to the top,” he instructs, “take a knife and tear the pillow apart.” The Jew is puzzled but dutiful, and does as his rabbi asks. When he gets to the top of the hill, he rips his pillow. Thousands of feathers fly out as the wind carries them in all directions, blowing them miles away. Soon, there are no traces of feathers anywhere.
The Jew reports back to the rabbi in the city, telling him that he did what was asked of him.
“Perfect,” says the Rabbi. “Now go and collect all the feathers.”
“What?” the man sputters. “But that’s impossible! They blew out all over the city! Probably all over the country by now! There’s no way I can possibly find all the feathers and bring them back!”
“Precisely,” says the rabbi, sadly. “This is exactly the effect when one speaks gossip about someone else.”
Lashon Hara Online
Many of us tweet. We all speak. We text. We email. If tweets can be potentially libelous, then Facebook statuses can, too. And emails. And Instagrams. The Courtney Love trial reminds us to watch the messages we send out. Do we comprehend the extensive impact every keystroke has?
And if we think it’s hard to control gossip in a face-to-face conversation, lashon hara is exponentially magnified by the wildfire nature of the Internet. From the comfort of one’s laptop, a person can silently destroy reputations. It’s so easy to just post that juicy one-liner. And that’s precisely the problem.
Back in the Myspace days, my good friend was verbally abused online by a classmate, who called her “fat,” “ugly,” and “doormat” countless times. To this day, my friend – now 22 years old – still remembers the pain.
In a 2004 survey conducted by the i-SAFE Foundation on 1,500 American students, statistics showed that over half of adolescents and teens have engaged in cyberbullying – the harming or harassment of other people in a deliberate, repeated, and hostile manner through the use of electronic communication. ("What is Cyberbullying". U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.) The same number of adolescents have been victims of this as well. Last year, 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick from Florida killed herself because she was being constantly tormented by two girls online. The two perpetrators – aged 12 and 14 – were arrested and charged with felonies.
The Love vs. Holmes case is a reminder of the steep price of an ill-considered statement. It involved two weeks, 12 jurors, and a potential bill for $8 million – all for a two-second act of carelessness.
Our words have enormous power to do harm and do good. Imagine how we can transform the conversation across all social media platforms by carefully observing the law of lashon hara.