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Jewish World Review
Sept. 6, 2005
/ 2 Elul, 5765
Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir
Is the blogger responsible for defamatory posts?
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
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 Basra 164b. (2)
Maimonides commentary on Mishnah Avos 1:16; Chafetz
Chaim I 9:1.
Personal note to my readers: Many of you are aware
that in February we came out with the Jewish Ethicist
book, published by Ktav. (SEE LINKS BELOW) The book includes expanded
and edited versions of some of the most popular
columns as well as a general introduction, chapter
introductions, and some new material. The book has
received outstanding reviews from Booklist, the Jewish
Press, the Jerusalem Post, and shamash.org and is the
topic of a feature article in the New Jersey Jewish
The book is being sold on the Amazon and Barnes &
Noble websites, but no readers have yet contributed
their own reviews. These reviews are a significant
help to potential customers. I encourage anyone who
has seen the book to provide a public service and
share your impressions, whatever they may be, with
potential readers who visit these important sites.
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THE JEWISH ETHICIST, NOW IN BOOK FORM
You've enjoyed his columns on JWR for years. Now the Jewish Ethicist has culled his most intriguing and controversial offerings in book form.
Sales help fund JWR.
JWR contributor Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, formerly of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Reagan
administration, is Research Director of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, Jerusalem College of Technology.
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© 2005, The Jewish Ethicist is produced by the JCT Center for Business Ethics