Panel Explores Media Through a Lens of Jewish Ethics

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Rabbi Mordechai Becher and lawyer Ron Coleman at the Ethics in the Media event
From left: Rabbi Mordechai Becher and lawyer Ron Coleman answer questions at the Ethics in the Media event. (Photo by Eric Schucht)

The Institute for Jewish Ethics is known for hosting discussions on how biblical law and Jewish ethics can apply to modern-day life.

So with the media becoming more diverse and omnipresent in people’s lives, it should come as no surprise that the organization decided to tackle the subject as it applies to the Fourth Estate.

Michael Smerconish and Shanin Specter
Michael Smerconish and Shanin Specter (Courtesy of Rabbi Alexander Coleman)

On Dec. 4, the institute hosted its “Ethics in the Media” event at the Jewish Community Services Building in Philadelphia. Four Jewish experts spoke about freedom of speech, hate speech, fake news and censorship viewed through the lens of American law and Talmudic ethics.

“The overarching goal is that people should really become more sensitive to the issues of ethics of proper speech, refined speech, honesty and integrity, and they should also understand how much Jewish law and Talmudic law really speaks to contemporary and relevant issues of modern times as well,” Rabbi Alexander Coleman, the institute’s founding director, said.

Rabbi Mordechai Becher, an instructor at Yeshiva University in New York and a senior lecturer of the Gateways Organization, said that as people speak, their thought process should include considering whether what is about to be said is in accordance with the person’s dignity.

From his own experience, he said the level of profanity in the presence of others has “increased tremendously” over the years, with people showing no hesitation in cursing.

He said there has to be some sensitivity when speaking to others. One example he gave was that of people referring to detention facilities as concentration camps or referring to the Israel Defense Forces as Nazis and how these words in this context could reasonably offend those in the Jewish community.

“It’s a level of sensitivity that Jewish law requires of us when we are speaking to someone,” Becher said. “And there are terms that you use in someone’s presence, and sometimes we are aware of it and sometimes we are not, but we have to be aware that certain terms, certain words, certain verbs, certain names can trigger off very negative emotions for various people.”

Ron Coleman, a lawyer and partner at Mandelbaum Salsburg and author of the Likelihood of Confusion, a blog focusing on trademark, copyright and internet law, detailed his experience as lead counsel for Simon Shiao Tam in the Supreme Court case Matal v. Tam.

In 1946, the Lanham Act was enacted, which prohibited the registration of trademarks that may “disparage” persons, institutions, beliefs or national symbols. Over time, this was interpreted to include ethnic groups, leading to the rejection of trademark applications for Heeb Magazine and for The Slants, an Asian American rock band. Coleman and his team were able to argue successfully to the court in a historic 2017 free speech ruling, and The Slants was granted its trademark.

“If you want to depart from the social norm, it’s not the government’s business to say whether or not you can do that,” Coleman said. “At the same time, as ethnic nicknames like ‘slants’ and ‘Heeb’ were being rejected for trademark registration, there were trademarks for words like ‘queer’ and ‘dyke.’ There is no principal distinction between the two.

“Those were reappropriation efforts on the part of people who stood for whatever those words embodied. Reappropriation become an ethos. … What we learned from our case was that there is no place in an order of liberty that we aspire to in the United States for any agency or a judge to describe what feelings will be hurt and by whom.”

For the second half of the event the audience listened to a lively discussion between radio and TV host Michael Smerconish and Shanin Specter, a founding partner at the law firm Kline & Specter and a member of the Inner Circle of Advocates.

“Most people don’t realize that lawyers are obligated to follow a code of ethics and that we take that code of ethics very seriously,” Specter said. “Journalists don’t have quite as robust and developed a code of ethics as we do, and perhaps they should, but they also, in my view, are careful to follow ethical precepts.”

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