I was reading that the Supreme Court of the United States is going to hear a case about whether social media companies are allowed to censor users’ posts.

Some claim that due to the First Amendment, social media platforms have no right to censor speech, even if others may find it hurtful, disturbing, or worse. Others claim that it’s their duty to protect their users.

Before answering, I want to point out that there’s an underlying philosophical difference between the Constitution and the Torah.

The Constitution is based on the notion that man was created with natural rights, and it’s the government’s job to protect those rights.

According to the Torah, however, G‑d did not just create us and leave us up to our own devices. Rather, He is actively involved in the world and cares about what we do. So He didn’t give us passive rights, but active responsibilities and duties.

Healthy Debate Vs. Free-For-All

Now let’s turn to the idea of free speech within Judaism.

A quick visit to any Talmudic study hall is enough to make it abundantly clear that Judaism is very much in favor of boisterous, spirited (to put it mildly) debate to help cut through the fog and reach a correct conclusion. The Talmud itself is essentially arranged as a series of arguments between the rabbis, debating a host of Judaic subjects.

So healthy debate is baked into the Jewish approach to life.

But does Judaism believe that there is an inherent notion of freedom of speech? Are there times when speech should be curtailed? And if yes, can one person be responsible for another person’s speech? What about platforms, which may or may not even be aware of how they’re being used?

You Are Responsible for What You Say

The Torah is clear: Watch your words. There are things you just shouldn’t say.

This includes lashon hara, literally “evil speech,” speaking negatively about others, even if it's true. As the Torah tells us, “You shall not go around as a gossipmonger amidst your people.”1

Lashon hara includes onaat devarim, or “hurtful speech”—saying things that will hurt, frighten or embarrass someone. This is reflected in the verse, And you shall not aggrieve, one man his fellow, and you shall fear your G‑d, for I am the L‑rd your G‑d.”2

Depending on the situation, harmful speech can actually violate up to 31 Torah commandments.3

Of course, there are exceptions, such as if your speech can save someone from being harmed.4 But, all things being equal, hurtful speech is generally prohibited.

(For more on this, see our articles Whistle-Blowing in Jewish Law and What Is the Torah Perspective on Safe Spaces, Trigger Words and Political Correctness? )

So we individuals need to watch what we say. But do the platforms have a responsibility to monitor what people say?

Enablers and Bystanders

Let's look at three Jewish concepts that can shed some light on this:

  • The Torah prohibition of “placing a stumbling block before a blind person,”5 which is broadly understood to mean doing something that will cause or enable a person to misstep.
  • The notion of aiding and abetting wrongdoing, even if you are not the cause.6
  • The imperative not to “stand upon the blood of your fellow,”7 which compels you to act when you see a person being harmed.

Placing a Stumbling Block Before the Blind

This refers to providing an opportunity for sin that would otherwise not exist.

The classic example is of a Nazirite (who is forbidden to drink wine and other grape products) standing on the riverbank. If you reach across the river and hand him a cup of wine he couldn’t otherwise reach, you transgress this sin. If, however, he had access to the wine without you, you would not be liable.8

This prohibition doesn’t apply to social media platforms, since slanderers and haters have many ways of getting their message out, even if they were blocked from a single platform.

Aiding and Abetting

Even if someone could’ve sinned without your help, there’s still the potential of transgressing the rabbinic prohibition of mesaye’a lidvar aveira, “being a helper for a prohibited action.”9

Nevertheless, the rabbis point out that this only applies if you provide the actual forbidden substance or tool, such as handing the Nazirite the cup of wine. However, handing them something neutral, such as an empty glass, is permitted.10

Based on this, you might think as long as these social media platforms are completely neutral and it’s the user who’s choosing to misuse them, the platforms wouldn’t be “helpers for a prohibited action.”

This may have been true in the early days of social media. But today, some platforms use algorithms that push certain content. If a social media platform chooses to favor specific hateful or harmful content, it may very well fall into the category of aiding the wrongdoers.

Not Standing By

What does it mean to “not stand by the blood of your neighbor”?11

Maimonides defines this prohibition as follows:12

This commandment applies when a person sees his fellow drowning at sea or being attacked by robbers or a wild animal, and he can save him himself or can hire others to save him. Similarly, it applies when he hears informers conspiring to harm a colleague or planning a snare for him, and he does not inform him and notify him of the danger.

And it applies when a person knows of a heathen or a strongman who has a grudge against a fellow, and he can appease the aggressor, but he fails to do so. And similarly, in all analogous instances, a person who fails to act transgresses.

So while the platforms may not be compelled to curtail victimless sinful speech under the first two prohibitions, they should prevent harm by censoring harmful content as best they can.

And even when there are no victims, the sages encourage us to prevent all possible sins as an “act of piety.”13