CELEBRITIES AND THE LAW:
ALL THE NEWS THAT'S FIT?

Lately, it seems that every day there is another celebrity having problems with the law. CNN.com recently had a feature on this very matter, presenting various celebrities over the years that have had legal difficulties, i.e. accused and/or convicted of crimes. There have been major and minor transgressions; matters of shoplifting, drug abuse, hit-and-run, murder and, of course, various sexual offenses.
Somehow, not only have these crimes made the headlines but every detail has attracted widespread interest, leaving the impression that the public deems such information to be of great importance. After all, if it's on the News doesn't that mean it is a serious matter and important to know?
But the mere presence of these kinds of stories in the major news outlets should not necessarily imply a need for the public to know about them.

The Torah laws related to
loshon harah -- broadly translated as a prohibition against gossip whether true or not -- present a challenge to our understanding of the value of a Free Press. Notwithstanding the various halachic details involved in any specific application of these laws, the concept of loshon harah advocates a respect for the privacy of an individual. We are called upon to protect the dignity of each human being and to avoid judgmentalism. From a broader communal perspective, these laws also declare the value of avoiding the degradation of public discourse, which can create a negative social atmosphere and foster conflict among people.
Communication among individuals is the glue that makes a society out of a collection of individuals. The quality of that communication heavily determines the quality of the society. Simply put, it is substantive topics, ideas, and practical issues that should interest us, not the follies of people. As such, the laws of loshon harah can improve the quality of our communications by placing restrictions on them. It is thus our contention that these laws can offer a valuable perspective when examining the Press.
They lead us to question the propriety and the necessity of the public presentations of the faults of any person, even celebrities.

Indeed, the original advocates of a Free Press also understood that the quality of a society is heavily dependent on the quality of communication -- and that is the very reason they advocated such broad freedoms on communications.

"But if there appears among you any new book, the ideas of which shock your own ... then you cry out Fire! and all is noise, scandal and uproar in your small corner of the earth... and why? For five or six pages, about which no one will give a fig at the end of three months. Does a book displease you? Refute it. Does it bore you? Don't read it. ... You fear books, as certain small cantons fear violins. Let men read, and let men dance -- these two amusements will never do any harm to the world." 1

"Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech or of the press;" 2

Rules that limit the flow of information must be examined carefully. Limitations on communication, even with the most positive of goals, as is the case with loshon harah, can yield abuse. There are good reasons why democracies have instituted constitutional restraints against government interference with the Press.
Still, as is evidenced by the over-emphasis on celebrity offenses, a Press without any sense of responsibility can yield abuse of a different kind. By focusing on such matters as celebrity misdeeds, news agencies have, to a certain extent, failed to accept the responsibilities of their role in a democratic society.
They have demonstrated less concern for creating an informed public, and more interest in preying on their lowest instincts by feeding them the most puerile and titillating candy. Strangely, freedom of communication, although built on high ideals, can also yield the sad consequences of a nation that is uninformed about, and uninterested in, matters of importance.

"A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." 3

As it stands now, many of the major stories are, in fact, mentioned in passing and quickly forgotten, while infantile gawking consumes much of a typical news broadcast. With incorrect priorities dominating the presentation of information, the public becomes less and less informed of the news that truly matters, and that they need in order to develop informed opinions.

But it must be explained that the laws of loshon harah are not simply about limiting speech. A detailed investigation of these laws actually reveals a recognition of the need to balance the values of free communication and proper restraint. Loshon harah demands of us to ask: what information do we need to know and what do we not need to know? The answer is often not simple. Also, the achievement of this balance is not easy. A cry of "loshon harah!" can often be used to halt the presentation of facts that are demonstrably important for the public to know. Similarly, a call for the importance of the free flow of information, even with reference to certain supportive details within the rules of loshon harah, can be used to advocate the presentation of facts that are harmful and clearly unnecessary. The correct conclusion is not always easy to ascertain.

Within this context, celebrities pose a special problem. As with any individual, we must be concerned with their privacy. After all, what difference does detailed knowledge of a celebrity's indiscretion make in our individual lives? Our interest in these stories may be motivated more by our desire for gossip than anything else. Yet, there may actually be a reason for us to have this knowledge. As long as we are in the (albeit questionable) habit of placing celebrities on a pedestal and deeming them to be role models within the community, we are put in the position of having to ensure that each celebrity meets a standard that is appropriate for this social status. Knowledge of a celebrity's crime may actually make a difference in our individual lives for it may inform us to be careful. Is this a person that should be looked up to as a role model? Should we scrutinize other behaviours of this person to see if they may have contributed to the celebrity's downfall, so that others can be warned of the risks?
These are actually not easy questions to answer.
In the case of a writer, for example, knowledge of his crimes may inform us to be cautious of the ideas that are advocated in this person's writings. But can a similar argument be extended to an actor who makes no specific personal statements through his work? Perhaps we still need to know of such crimes, so that we ensure that we do not give public accolades to people who truly do not deserve them. Yet, should we avoid public accolades for a person who, aside from one recently-discovered problem, has primarily lived an altruistic existence? Even in the case of the writer, can you reasonably judge someone's entire character over one error? "Let he who has never sinned cast the first stone."
Inherent in the laws of loshon harah would seem to be a standard of compassion, but it must be cautious compassion. We must also ask how much knowledge is necessary to know; Do we really need to know all the sordid details? In regard to the press, we may also ask: what is the opportunity cost in terms of other news that is not being reported in depth due to time or space constraints?
The fact is that drawing a line between necessary news and gossip sometimes requires careful thought and consideration of particular circumstances. This is true, not only for the grander stories tossed into the public forum, but also for the information that we confront in our daily lives. We must meet the challenge of acquiring the ability to correctly identify gossip as such, so that we can ignore it; but we must also ensure that we can correctly identify and embrace the information we need.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht,
with Howard Pasternack

1. Francois-Marie Arouey de Voltaire; essay on Liberty of the Press in his Philosophical Dictionary, 1750.
2.
Constitution of the United States, 1st Amendment.
3.
James Madison, to W.T. Barry, Aug.4, 1822. An unfortunate corollary to this is Hitler's statement: "What good fortune for those in power that people do not think".

2003 NISHMA