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Free Speech
By: Rabbi Berel Wein

Free speech is an integral part of a free society. Yet, like all freedoms, it requires responsibility and self-discipline in its exercise. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in his famous Supreme Court opinion, declared that freedom of speech does not allow one to shout "fire" in a crowded theater where no fire exists. Thus, even this most free of all our freedoms, the right to say what we wish, must be subject to some limitations in order for society to function.

Nevertheless, we are witness daily to outrageous slanders, both personal and communal, that fill our media. Gossip columnists are folk heroes even if they are consistently wrong and vicious in their reports. We are so enamored of the affairs of others that the concept of the right to personal privacy, especially for people in the public eye, has been shredded. Personal attacks, slanderous statements, and dubious opinions about others are all now acceptable in our society. The cost of such behavior is, in my opinion, inestimable, and it is the source of much of what is wrong in Jewish life in America and Israel today.

The Torah deals with wretched types of dermatological diseases (whatever they were, they did not include leprosy) that require spiritual cleansing in order for the afflicted person to be healed and to become ritually pure once more. Our Rabbis stated that these diseases were caused by a spiritual failing -- the sin of lashon hara, "evil speech." The Torah bids us not to speak about other human beings. The Talmud indicates that there are instances when even apparently complimentary speech about others is not permitted. We all know how derogatory faint praise and snide compliments can be. The Talmud realized that this problem of uninhibited freedom of speech was so all-encompassing that it stated that all human beings are somehow covered by the "dust of lashon hara." In the last century, the sainted Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan wrote a number of great books detailing the laws of speech and how to avoid the trap of speaking lashon hara. A great effort was made, and is still being made, in the traditional Jewish world to speak in an acceptable and refined holy fashion. There is no room for slander in life. The expose, whether oral or in print, usually leaves the speaker more exposed than the victim. Our rabbis taught us that lashon hara "kills" three victims - the speaker, the listen- er, and the subject of the conversation. Uninhibited speech leads to bad consequences.

The characteristic that distinguishes humans from animals is the power of speech, which, more than any other trait, represents our intellectual capacity to communicate. Judaism always has taught that this characteristic is a holy gift from the Creator. Just like the gifts of life, health, talents, and family, this gift of speech is not to be abused. It is to be used sparingly and carefully, for good purposes and not for evil. Gossip, muckraking, slander, and cynical language all fly in the face of the purpose of this holy gift of speech. Even when one is speaking the truth, one is cautioned to avoid the pitfalls of lashon hara, for unlike the case of a libel action, truth alone is not a sufficient cause for speaking about others. As such, the rabbinic encouragement of healthy silence is well understood and appreciated. In a world where, sadly, this precept is in vogue, and in fact, the entire concept of lashon hara may inspire only incredulity, a determined effort on our part to restore the sanctity of speech is certainly in order.