Blogging Ethics II – 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 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.