Fair Dealing and Fraud

My weekly lectures (available at the Internet Archive) and column for this past פרשת בהר discussed the laws of אונאה:

In parashas Behar, the Torah commands (25:14): “And if thou sell ought unto thy neighbour, or buyest ought of thy neighbour’s hand, ye shall not oppress [or ‘aggrieve’] one another.” The Talmud (Bava Metzia 51a, 58b) explains that this refers to onaas mamon, i.e., the mispricing of goods in a sale: a seller may not overcharge a buyer, and a buyer may not underpay a seller.

Onaah applies where the price paid is above or below the merchandise’s ‘correct’ price; it is not entirely clear, however, how to define this ‘correct’ price. The Talmud and early sources apparently take for granted that any particular merchandise has a well defined price, and it seems that there was typically little or no variation in price between vendors (but see Aruch Ha’Shulchan CM 227:7). In contemporary markets, however, merchandise is typically sold at a variety of different prices by different vendors; what, then, determines the maximum price at which it may be sold?

One possibility is that the maximum permissible price is simply the lowest one at which the merchandise is available. Since the buyer is able to purchase the merchandise for that price, any higher price is unfair to him and constitutes onaah (see Erech Shai CM beginning of #209). R. Chaim Kohn, however, rejects this as being both untenable (as according to this view, violations of onaah are ubiquitous) and illogical (why should the lowest price be the exclusively legitimate one?). He argues that any price established by the normal free market forces of supply and demand is legitimate, and onaah applies only to prices outside the range established by these forces (Kol Ha’Torah #49 [Tishrei 5761] pp. 286-87, and cf. Pischei Choshen Onaah Ch. 10 n. 1).

Others suggest that the ‘correct’ price is theoretically defined as the midpoint between the highest and lowest prices for which the merchandise is sold, but in practice, there are various reasons why the traditional laws of onaah will generally not apply to sales in the contemporary free market economy (Darkei Horaah pp. 121-24, and cf. Alon Ha’Mishpat #63 [Nisan 5774]).

The fundamental concept upon which the laws of אונאה are based is that of the merchandise’s “fair price”, which is defined as its local, current price. אונאה is generally committed when one buys or sells at a price that deviates from this price, regardless of the price the seller paid for the merchandise or other considerations. Of critical practical importance, therefore – and yet frustratingly difficult to properly address – is the question of how this fair price is determined in a marketplace where various vendors offer the merchandise for sale at different prices. The great nineteenth century חושן משפט authority Rav Shlomo Yehudah Tabak seems to maintain that the fair price is established by the lowest price available, since if the merchandise is sold above that price, the buyer is thereby injured:

ויש להם אונאה כתב הש”ך אפילו אותו דבר אין שער שלו ידוע נשאלתי אם איסור אונאה דוקא בדבר שיש שער קצוב שכל בעלי חנויות מוכרין בשוה אבל כשכל חנוני מוכר כפי מה שיכול להוציא מן הקונה אם מותר למכור ביוקר בדבר שיכול הקונה לקנות דבר זה אצל אחר בזול והשבתי הדבר מבואר בש”ך כאן … [באונאה] אין לחלק דכל שיודע דאפשר ליקחנו אצל אחר בפחות מאנהו ואסור.1

Several leading contemporary חושן משפט authorities, however, find this position completely untenable.

Rav Chaim Kohn:

ולדבריו [של הערך ש”י] יש לעיין כפי הנהוג בשוק החופשי כאשר המחיר וערך הסחורה נקבעין לפי גורמי ביקוש [ו]הצע האם שייכת אונאה באם אינו מוכר במחיר הזול ביותר שהסחורה נמכרת בה, ולפום ריהטא על זה דן הערך ש”י ולפי זה שייך אונאה גם בסחורה הנמכרת לפי גורמי ביקוש והצע והחנויות באותו השוק מוכרות אותה הסחורה במחירים שונים, וממילא המוכר הסחורה במחיר גבוה מהמחיר הזול ביותר יש בו אונאה. ומלבד דאם כן הוא לא שבקת חיי לכל בריה, עצם הסברא אינה מובנת וגם הראיה מהש”ך צ”ע, דהנה גדר אונאה הוא שהמחיר אינו כפי ערך הסחורה, וקביעת ערך הסחורה הוא כפי הגורמים הקובעים את ערכה בשוק, וממילא בשוק שהסחורה נמכרת לפי גורמי ביקוש והצע כל מחיר שהוא בכלל הגורמים הנ”ל הוא בכלל הערך, ואם כן למה נאמר שהמוכר במחיר הזול ביותר הוא זה שקובע את ערך הסחורה והמוכר ביותר ממחיר זה יש בו אונאה, הא גם המוכר במחיר יקר יותר יכול לומר שזהו ערך הסחורה אם המחיר בכלל גורמי הערך הנ”ל. …2

R. Kohn’s own position is that any price that is in accordance with the properly functioning forces of supply and demand (“גורמי ביקוש והצע”) is perforce legitimate. He develops his thesis at some length, but I do not fully understand his distinction between prices that are in accordance with the forces of supply and demand and those that are not.

Similarly, Rav Mendel Shafran argues that R. Tabak does not actually mean what his closing words seem to imply:

ויש שדייקו מהערך ש”י, שמחשבים את השווי של החפץ לענין אונאה על פי בעל החנות הזול ביותר, לפי מה שכתב בסוף דבריו שכל שיודע שאפשר לקנות חפץ כזה יותר בזול אינו רשאי למוכרו ביוקר. אך באמת אין הנידונים דומים, ולנידון זה אין ראיה מהש”ך, דמדברי הש”ך מוכח רק שיש אונאה גם בדבר שאינו קצוב, אך לא מבואר מדבריו כלל לפי איזה מחיר אומדים את האונאה.3

A mini-haburah I delivered a couple of years ago on the application of אונאה to contemporary markets is available at the Internet Archive.

  1. ערך ש”י חו”מ ריש סימן ר”ט []
  2. רב חיים קאהן, מחירים בשוק חפשי ואונאה בדבר שאין לו שער ידוע, קול התורה חוברת מ”ט תשרי ה’תשס”א עמוד רפב []
  3. עלון המשפט, גליון חודש ניסן ה’תשע”ד #63 עמוד 6, ועיין עוד פתחי חושן, הלכות גניבה ואונאה, פרק י’ הערה א’ מד”ה בהמשך פרק זה []

Price Gouging the Desperate

A famous scene from Shakespeare’s Richard III:

ACT V SCENE IV. Another part of the field.

Alarum: excursions. Enter NORFOLK and forces fighting; to him CATESBY


Rescue, my Lord of Norfolk, rescue, rescue!
The king enacts more wonders than a man,
Daring an opposite to every danger:
His horse is slain, and all on foot he fights,
Seeking for Richmond in the throat of death.
Rescue, fair lord, or else the day is lost!



A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!


Withdraw, my lord; I’ll help you to a horse.


Slave, I have set my life upon a cast,
And I will stand the hazard of the die:
I think there be six Richmonds in the field;
Five have I slain to-day instead of him.
A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!


We have previously posted a detailed analysis of whether the trade King Richard proposes would constitute אונאה; the issue is whether one who pays more than the normal price out of desperation subsequently has a claim of אונאה. I recently encountered discussion of this case in R. Dr. Aaron Levine’s Case Studies In Jewish Business Ethics:

While a complaint of overcharge is not given validity when the reference price is anything but the current market norm, an exception to the rule can be identified: “It has been taught, R. Judah b. Batera [mid-1st. cent.] said: The sale of a horse, sword, and buckler on [the field of] battle is not subject to ona’ah, because one’s very life is dependent upon them.”

Given the life-threatening environment of the battlefield, the vendee would pay, if he had to, any sum to acquire the implements of war. Economists describe a desperate need of this sort with the phrase “perfectly inelastic demand.” Consider, too, that the buyer, for all intents and purposes, will not hazard to investigate market alternatives during a raging battle. The vendor therefore enjoys a monopoly position here.

Since the vendee’s demand for a horse or weapon in the battlefield zone is perfectly inelastic, he certainly receives subjective equivalence for whatever price he agrees to pay for these articles. This is the reasoning of R. Judah b. Batera. Whether his ruling represents mainstream talmudic thought is a matter of dispute among the early decisors. [R. Dr. Levine proceeds to cite various poskim who address this question, whom we have cited in our previous post.] …

The acceptability of R. Judah ben Batera’s opinion, according to R. Moses ha-Kohen of Lunel, a thirteenth-century French decisor, hinges heavily upon the validity of assimilating his battlefield case with the fugitive-ferryman case discussed at Bava Kamma 115a. Here, the Talmud relates that if an absconding criminal agrees to pay a ferryman an above-market price to provide him with conveyance across a river, he is entitled to recoup from the ferryman the differential involved.

The point of similarity between the two cases is that in both instances the buyer’s interest in the product involved is price-inelastic; i.e., he would agree, for all intents and purposes, to pay any price the seller insists on. In the ferryman-fugitive case, since the conveyance averts the fugitive’s imminent capture, the latter certainly receives subjective equivalence in his transaction with the ferryman. Nevertheless, if his fugitive status were removed, his demand for the conveyance would probably be described as price-elastic, and he would presumably not value the service above market price. With his price-inelastic demand reflecting transitory subjective value, the fugitive is entitled to recoup from the ferryman any amount he paid him above the competitive norm. Similarly, remove the condition of war and the vendee would presumably not agree to pay the asking price at hand for the implements of war.

Though R. Moses ha-Kohen advances no specifics to explain why this assimilation should be rejected, two points of dissimilarity stand out. First, whereas the demand-inducing factor in the battlefield case affects all market demanders equally, causing the aggregate demand schedule for implements of war to shift upward, no such upward shift in demand occurs in the fugitive-ferryman case. The demand-inducing factor uniquely affects the fugitive’s subjective evaluation of the ferryman’s services, leaving everyone else’s demand for the service unaffected. Second, whereas a competitive norm exists for the services of the ferryman at the time the fugitive struck his bargain, no competitive norm exists at the time an individual buys implements of war on a battlefield. While the commercial market for horses and weapons is normally subject to a competitive norm, the marketplace for these articles completely collapses within the framework of the battlefield zone. The economic environment that prevails in such a scene effectively precludes the emergence of a competitive price for these articles. Resource mobility and knowledge of market alternatives are conspicuously absent here, as the movement of market participants is severely restricted. With economic activity characteristically unorganized and sporadic, the market for these articles becomes minutely fragmented. Within this framework, price is determined by the individual bargains buyers and sellers reach. Since the buyer’s bid determines value here, his ona’ah claim should be denied, notwithstanding the circumstantial nature of his demand in this case.

What proceeds clearly from the school of thought that accepts the analogy between the fugitive-ferryman case and the battlefield case is the general principle that exercise of monopoly power, when the relevant aggregate demand schedule is perfectly inelastic, is ethically immoral.

Selling at whatever price the market will bear when the relevant demand the monopolist faces is price-elastic, however, presents no moral issue in Jewish law. This is evident from the long-standing sanction given to the communal practice of auctioning the privilege of performing a public ceremonial function of a religious character to the highest bidder. With the ceremonial honor put up for sale unavailable elsewhere, the competitive bidding among the auction participants determines value. Hence, no moral issue is raised here. Capitalizing on “site value”, auctioning a rare painting, and selling the patent rights of a new invention to the highest bidder provide other examples of monopoly pricing under conditions of elastic demand.2

The basic inference from the case of the fugitive and the ferryman of the general principle that a deal made by someone “under pressure” to pay an unfairly high price need not be subsequently honored is also articulated by Ritva:

גמרא קידושין

רב כהנא שקיל סודרא מבי פדיון הבן אמר ליה לדידי חזי לי חמש סלעים אמר רב אשי לא אמרן אלא כגון רב כהנא דגברא רבה הוא ומבעי ליה סודרא ארישיה אבל כולי עלמא לא כי הא דמר בר רב אשי זבן סודרא מאימיה דרבה מקובי שוי עשרה בתליסר:3


פירוש וקים לן ודאי דשוה חמש לדידיה, אבל כולי עלמא דלא שוי’ ליה לא, ואף על גב דקבלי’ עליה לאו כל כמיניה.
ושמע’ מהכא שהמוכר חפץ לחבירו בשית ובשוק לא שוו אלא חמשה, אי להאי לוקח שוי שיתא אין בו אונאה, דבתר דידיה אזלינן, כי היכי דחשבינן ליה הכא דשוי חמש סלעים,
מיהו בדשוי’ לזבונא שיתא כי אורחיה, אבל אי לדידיה לא שוי’ אלא מפני שהוא דחוק בדבר, האי ודאי קציצה מתוך בדחק לא שמיה קציצה, ואפילו נתן לו הדמים חוזר וגובה אותם ממנו, והכי מוכח ביבמות … ושמעינן מינה שכל המתנה בשכירות יותר מכדי דמים מפני האונס ודוחק השעה שלו, יכול לומר משטה אני בך, ומכאן ללוקח סמנין הרבה בדמים יקרים מפני חולי הדוחק, דלא מחייב אלא בדמיהן וכן כל כיוצא בזה, מיהו אם התנה בשכר הרופא הרבה, חייב ליתן, שחכמתו מכר לו ואין לה דמים, וכן כתב אדונינו הרמב”ן ז”ל, וכן שמעתי מפי מורי נר”ו.4

It is worth noting that among contemporary secular economists and philosophers there is also no consensus on whether taking advantage of the misfortune of others to profit by raising prices constitutes immoral “price gouging” or is merely the standard and legitimate business practice of “charging what the market will bear”; here’s how Prof. Michael J. Sandel, an expert on the subject of justice, describes the debate (h/t: Minds and Discourse):

In the summer of 2004, Hurricane Charley roared out of the Gulf of Mexico and swept across Florida to the Atlantic Ocean. The storm claimed twenty-two lives and caused $11 billion in damage. It also left in its wake a debate about price gouging.

At a gas station in Orlando, they were selling two-dollar bags of ice for ten dollars. Lacking power for refrigerators or air-conditioning in the middle of August, many people had little choice but to pay up. Downed trees heightened demand for chain saws and roof repairs. Contractors offered to clear two trees off a homeowner’s roof — for $23,000. Stores that normally sold small household generators for $250 were now asking $2,000. A seventy-seven-year-old woman fleeing the hurricane with her elderly husband and handicapped daughter was charged $160 per night for a motel room that normally goes for $40.

Many Floridians were angered by the inflated prices. “After Storm Come the Vultures,” read a headline in USA Today. One resident, told it would cost $10,500 to remove a fallen tree from his roof, said it was wrong for people to “try to capitalize on other people’s hardship and misery.” Charlie Crist, the state’s attorney general, agreed: “It is astounding to me, the level of greed that someone must have in their soul to be willing to take advantage of someone suffering in the wake of a hurricane.”

Florida has a law against price gouging, and in the aftermath of the hurricane, the attorney general’s office received more than two thousand complaints. Some led to successful lawsuits. A Days Inn in West Palm Beach had to pay $70,000 in penalties and restitution for overcharging customers.

But even as Crist set about enforcing the price-gouging law, some economists argued that the law — and the public outrage — were misconceived. In medieval times, philosophers and theologians believed that the exchange of goods should be governed by a “just price,” determined by tradition or the intrinsic value of things. But in market societies, the economists observed, prices are set by supply and demand. There is no such thing as a “just price.”

Thomas Sowell, a free-market economist, called price gouging an “emotionally powerful but economically meaningless expression that most economists pay no attention to, because it seems too confused to bother with.” Writing in the Tampa Tribune, Sowell sought to explain “how ‘price gouging’ helps Floridians.” Charges of price gouging arise “when prices are significantly higher than what people have been used to,” Sowell wrote. But “the price levels that you happen to be used to” are not morally sacrosanct. They are no more “special or ‘fair’ than other prices” that market conditions — including those prompted by a hurricane — may bring about.

Jeff Jacoby, a pro-market commentator writing in the Boston Globe, argued against price-gouging laws on similar grounds: “It isn’t gouging to charge what the market will bear. It isn’t greedy or brazen. It’s how goods and services get allocated in a free society.” Jacoby acknowledged that the “price spikes are infuriating, especially to someone whose life has just been thrown into turmoil by a deadly storm.” But public anger is no justification for interfering with the free market. By providing incentives for suppliers to produce more of the needed goods, the seemingly exorbitant prices “do far more good than harm.” His conclusion: “Demonizing vendors won’t speed Florida’s recovery. Letting them go about their business will.”

Attorney General Crist (a Republican who would later be elected governor of Florida) published an op-ed piece in the Tampa paper defending the law against price gouging: “In times of emergency, government cannot remain on the sidelines while people are charged unconscionable prices as they flee for their lives or seek the basic commodities for their families after a hurricane.” Crist rejected the notion that these “unconscionable” prices reflected a truly free exchange:This is not the normal free market situation where willing buyers freely elect to enter into the marketplace and meet willing sellers, where a price is agreed upon based on supply and demand. In an emergency, buyers under duress have no freedom. Their purchases of necessities like safe lodging are forced.The debate about price gouging that arose in the aftermath of Hurricane Charley raises hard questions of morality and law: Is it wrong for sellers of goods and services to take advantage of a natural disaster by charging whatever the market will bear? If so, what, if anything, should the law do about it? Should the state prohibit price gouging, even if doing so interferes with the freedom of buyers and sellers to make whatever deals they choose? …

Sandel continues with his analysis of the issue.

I recently gave a brief talk on the possibility of rescission of a deal made by someone under pressure, in the context of the broader question of the halachic valuation of something that is worth more to a specific individual than the price assigned to it by the market; the lecture is available, along with some brief notes on the general topic, at the Internet Archive.

  1. Richard III, Act V Scene IV []
  2. R. Dr. Aaron Levine, Case Studies in Jewish Business Ethics, pp. 158-60. []
  3. קידושין ח.‏ []
  4. חידושי הריטב”א (מוסד הרב קוק) שם עמודים עד-עה ד”ה לעולם. []

A Time To Keep Silence, And A Time To speak

Stopp and Stopp Tries To Stop Wikipedia

As reported by the New York Times:

Wolfgang Werlé and Manfred Lauber became infamous for killing a German actor in 1990. Now they are suing to force Wikipedia to forget them.

The legal fight pits German privacy law against the American First Amendment. German courts allow the suppression of a criminal’s name in news accounts once he has paid his debt to society, noted Alexander H. Stopp, the lawyer for the two men, who are now out of prison.

“They should be able to go on and be resocialized, and lead a life without being publicly stigmatized” for their crime, Mr. Stopp said. “A criminal has a right to privacy, too, and a right to be left alone.”

Mr. Stopp has already successfully pressured German publications to remove the killers’ names from their online coverage. German editors of Wikipedia have scrubbed the names from the German-language version of the article about the victim, Walter Sedlmayr.

Now Mr. Stopp, in suits in German courts, is demanding that the Wikimedia Foundation, the American organization that runs Wikipedia, do the same with the English-language version of the article. That has free-speech advocates quoting George Orwell.

Floyd Abrams, a prominent First Amendment lawyer who has represented The New York Times, said every justice on the United States Supreme Court would agree that the Wikipedia article “is easily, comfortably protected by the First Amendment.”

But Germany’s courts have come up with a different balance between the right to privacy and the public’s right to know, Mr. Abrams said, and “once you’re in the business of suppressing speech, the quest for more speech to suppress is endless.”

The German law springs from a decision of Germany’s highest court in 1973, said Julian Höppner, a lawyer with the Berlin law firm JBB who has represented the Wikimedia Foundation, though not in this case.

Publications generally comply with the law, Mr. Höppner said, by referring to “the perpetrator — or, Mr. L.” But with such a well-known case, he said, expunging the record “is difficult to accomplish — and, morally speaking, rightly so.”

The court’s goals in the 1973 decision were laudable, he said, but the logic might not be workable in the Internet age, when archival material that was legally published at the time can be called up with a simple Google search. The question of excising names from archives has not yet been resolved by the German courts, he said. …

The online encyclopedia is written and edited by armies of independent volunteers, and “if our German editors have chosen to remove the names of the murderers from their article on Walter Sedlmayr, we support them in that choice,” said Mr. Godwin, adding, “The English-language editors have chosen to include the names of the killers, and we support them in that choice.” …

Mr. Werlé, one of the killers, was released from prison in 2007, and Mr. Lauber, the other, in 2008.

Their lawyer, Mr. Stopp, contacted Wikimedia about both men, citing cases since 2006 that had suppressed publication of their names in Germany. He has won a default judgment against Wikimedia for Mr. Lauber in a German court, and last month sent the foundation a letter regarding Mr. Werlé, whose case against Wikimedia is pending.

“The German courts, including several courts of appeals, have held that our client’s name and likeness cannot be used anymore in publication regarding Mr. Sedlmayr’s death,” he wrote.

The letter included a sample agreement in which the organization would remove Mr. Werlé’s name from the article or pay a “contractual fine” of no less than 5,100 euros — about $7,600 at the current rate of exchange — “for each case of infringement,” to compensate him for “all loss and emotional suffering incurred” because of prior publication.

In a written response to Mr. Stopp, Wikimedia questioned the relevance of any judgments in the German courts, since, it said, it has no operations in Germany and no assets there.

“We’ll see,” Mr. Stopp said in an interview. In an e-mail message after the interview, he wrote, “In the spirit of this discussion, I trust that you will not mention my clients’ names in your article.”

Here’s the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s eloquent, full-throated defense of our First Amendment against encroachment by German privacy law and foreign law in general:

In 1990, Bavarian actor Walter Sedlmayr was brutally murdered. Two of his business associates were convicted, imprisoned for the crime, and recently paroled. Who killed Sedlmayr? Its a matter of public record, but if one of the men and his German law firm gets their way, Wikipedia (and EFF) will not be allowed to tell you. A few days ago, the online encyclopedia received a cease and desist letter from one of the convicts—represented by the aptly named German law firm Stopp and Stopp—demanding that the perpetrator’s name be taken off of the Sedlmayr article page.

At issue is an apparent conflict between the U.S. First Amendment—which protects truthful speech—and German law—which seeks to protect the name and likenesses of private persons from unwanted publicity. Sedlmayr’s murderer became a public figure when he and his accomplice were tried for brutally killing the well-known actor, and contemporary newspapers published his identity at that time. Fifteen years later, according to his attorneys, German law views the killer as a private citizen again. So, his lawyers have sued the German language Wikipedia, and threatened the English language version with the same, if they fail to censor the Sedlmayr article. They’ve also gone after an Austrian ISP that had published the names, and it looks like that case may head to the European Court of Justice. Perhaps Germany wants to make it easier for defendants to reintegrate into society, and publicizing a man’s past crimes interferes with the effort. After all, “he who controls the past, controls the future”. But this slogan from Orwell’s Ministry of Truth is anathema under U.S. law, which takes it as an article of faith that people must be allowed to publish truthful information about historical events.

A foreign power should not be able to censor publications in the United States, regardless of whether doing so suits the country’s domestic law. The current dispute is reminiscent of LICRA v. Yahoo!, in which a French court ordered the American company to prevent access to its Nazi memorabilia auctions by French residents, then fined the company for failing to do so. Yahoo! sought and obtained a ruling in the U.S. that imposing the French law on the company would violate the First Amendment. (The opinion was subsequently overturned for lack of personal jurisdiction over the French entities).

At stake is the integrity of history itself. If all publications have to abide by the censorship laws of any and every jurisdiction just because they are accessible over the global internet, then we will not be able to believe what we read, whether about Falun Gong (censored by China), the Thai king (censored under lèse majesté) or German murders. Wikipedia appears ready to fight for write once, read anywhere history, and EFF will be watching this fight closely.

Oh, and by the way, the convicts were Wolfgang Werlé and his half-brother Manfred Lauber.

And here’s Prof. Eugene Volokh’s reaction:

Not so long ago, the law in some American states — including, most prominently, California, where I live — would actually have been on the side of suppressing the criminals’ names, maybe, sometimes, depending on how a judge or jury would apply a mushy “newsworthiness” standard. Fortunately, some Supreme Court decisions from the 1970s and 1980s recognized a nearly unlimited right to report truthful information from public records, and a 2004 California Supreme Court decision definitively held that the old California cases were no longer good law.

To explain why I think protecting such speech is an excellent decision — and why I’m strongly opposed to some “privacy” and “paid his debt to society” rhetoric in such cases — I thought I’d reprint an excerpt of my Freedom of Speech and Information Privacy: The Troubling Implications of a Right to Stop People From Speaking About You, 52 Stanford L. Rev. 1049 (2000):

[In Briscoe, Reader’s Digest was held liable for revealing that Briscoe had eleven years earlier been convicted of armed robbery (a robbery that involved his fighting “a gun battle with the local police”). The court acknowledged that the speech, while not related to any particular political controversy, was newsworthy; the public is properly concerned with crime, how it happens, how it’s fought, and how it can be avoided. Moreover, revealing the identity of someone “currently charged with the commission of a crime” is itself newsworthy, because “it may legitimately put others on notice that the named individual is suspected of having committed a crime,” thus presumably warning them that they may want to be cautious in their dealings with him.

But revealing Briscoe’s identity eleven years after his crime, the court said, served no “public purpose” and was not “of legitimate public interest”; there was no “reason whatsoever” for it. The plaintiff was “rehabilitated” and had “paid his debt to society.”) “[W]e, as right-thinking members of society, should permit him to continue in the path of rectitude rather than throw him back into a life of shame or crime” by revealing his past. “Ideally, [Briscoe’s] neighbors should recognize his present worth and forget his past life of shame. But men are not so divine as to forgive the past trespasses of others, and plaintiff therefore endeavored to reveal as little as possible of his past life.” And to assist Briscoe in what the court apparently thought was a worthy effort at concealment, the law may bar people from saying things that would interfere with Briscoe’s plans.

Judges are of course entitled to have their own views about which things “right-thinking members of society” should “recognize” and which they should forget; but it seems to me that under the First Amendment members of society have a constitutional right to think things through in their own ways. And some people do take a view that differs from that of the Briscoe judges: While criminals can change their character, this view asserts, they often don’t. Someone who was willing to fight a gun battle with the police eleven years ago may be more willing than the average person to do something bad today, even if he has led a blameless life since then (something that no court can assure us of, since it may be that he has continued acting violently on occasion, but just hasn’t yet been caught).

Under this ideology, it’s perfectly proper to keep this possibility in mind in one’s dealings with the supposedly “reformed” felon. While the government may want to give him a second chance by releasing him from prison, restoring his right to vote and possess firearms, and even erasing its publicly accessible records related to the conviction, his friends, acquaintances, and business associates are entitled to adopt a different attitude. Most presumably wouldn’t treat him as a total pariah, but they might use extra caution in dealing with him, especially when it comes to trusting their business welfare or even their physical safety (or that of their children) to his care. And, as Richard Epstein has pointed out, they might use extra caution in dealing with him precisely because he has for the last eleven years hidden this history and denied them the chance to judge him for themselves based on the whole truth about his past. Those who think such concealment is wrong will see it as direct evidence of present bad character (since the concealment was continuing) and not just of past bad character. . . .

[W]hich viewpoint about our neighbors’ past crimes is “right-thinking” and which is “wrong-thinking” is the subject of a longstanding moral debate. Surely it is not up to the government to conclude that the latter view is so wrong, that Briscoe’s conviction was so “[il]legitimate” a subject for consideration, that the government can suppress speech that undermines its highly controversial policy of forgive-and-forget. I can certainly see why all of us might want to suppress “information about [our] remote and forgotten past[s]” in order “to change . . . others’ definitions of [ourselves].” But in a free speech regime, others’ definitions of me should primarily be molded by their own judgments, rather than by my using legal coercion to keep them in the dark.

So the California Supreme Court’s 2004 decision (Gates v. Discovery Communications, Inc.), and the Supreme Court decisions on which it’s based, are a victory for free speech. And to the extent that they are a defeat for “privacy” under such circumstances, they are a defeat for a form of privacy that the law ought not recognize — a putative right to stop people from telling the truth about what you’ve done.

Further reading: Wired’s Threat Level, PogoWasRight.org, Geek.com, CNET.

EPIC’s Amicus In Favor Of Stoppage

Here’s Prof. Volokh on a similar affair, this one in the United States with its relatively stronger speech protections and weaker privacy rights:

In an amicus brief EPIC just filed in G.D. v. Kenny — a case pending before the New Jersey Supreme Court — EPIC argues that convicted criminals should be able to sue for “disclosure of private facts” when others accurately report on the criminal conviction, so long as the state court system decided to retroactively expunge that conviction. …

Other parts of the EPIC brief argue that revealing the fact of a conviction without revealing that it was expunged might properly constitute false light invasion of privacy. I don’t think this is right, at least if the expungement is not based on a finding of actual innocence, since the important factual assertion underlying the revelation — which is that someone did something criminal — remains correct, and puts the person in a true light, not a false light. But that’s a separate matter.

Here, I want to point to EPIC’s argument that “‘truth’ is not a defense to privacy torts,” and in particular that “the appellate court should not have terminated [plaintiff’s] … public disclosure of private facts claim[] once it dismissed the defamation claim. Invasion of privacy remains an issue of fact for the jury.”

In the case itself, plaintiff G.D. had been convicted in 1993 for possessing drugs with intent to distribute, and sentenced to five years in prison. He later worked for Brian Stack “as a part-time aide … when Stack was a member of the Hudson County Board of Freeholders.” Stack later became “a member of the State Assembly as well as the Mayor of Union City,” and a primary candidate for the New Jersey Senate. “Defendants believed that plaintiff supported Stack in his primary campaign for the State Senate nomination, although plaintiff maintained that he was not actively working for Stack’s candidacy.”

So during the primary campaign, defendants — Stack’s political adversaries — put out a flyer attacking Stack, by pointing to the past misdeeds of Stack’s associates, including G.D. Defendants apparently didn’t know (and perhaps wouldn’t have cared) that G.D. had gotten the conviction officially expunged — a procedure that is not, to my knowledge, based on a judgment of innocence, but just on a state’s judgment that expunging the conviction is fair and helps promote rehabilitation. (As it happens, despite the expungement, the conviction was still present on the New Jersey Department of Corrections Web site until after G.D.‘s lawsuit against defendants was filed.) G.D. sued for defamation, false light invasion of privacy, and disclosure of private facts; the New Jersey appellate court rejected G.D.‘s claim as a matter of law, because the statements were substantially true; last month, the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed to review the matter.

So the plaintiffs were speaking about an official and public New Jersey proceeding — G.D.‘s conviction. They were speaking about something that New Jersey law treats as a serious crime. They were speaking about someone who had been an aide to a politician, and whose character in some measure could be seen by voters as reflecting on the character of the person who chose to hire him.

Yet EPIC takes the view that the legal system should potentially be able to impose potentially huge financial liability for conveying this information about G.D. (if a jury concludes such liability is proper, presumably because the jury concludes publishing such information is, in its view, “offensive to a reasonable person” and not “newsworthy”). And this is so despite the Court’s having held that people at the very least have a presumptive right to communicate truthful information drawn from court records, even when the information relates to innocent victims. Surely the First Amendment must assure at least as much with regard to information about convicted criminals, especially ones who have become assistants to political officials.

Of course, some voters and other listeners may reasonably conclude that they don’t care about 14-year-old felony conviction. And a state may choose to no longer distribute such information itself, or to rely on it itself. But it doesn’t follow that the government may gag — on pain of potentially massive jury awards — those citizens who continue to think that the information may be relevant to an evaluation of the convicted criminal’s character.

As I argue in Freedom of Speech and Information Privacy: The Troubling Implications of a Right to Stop People From Speaking About You, 52 52 Stanford L. Rev. 1049 (2000), this sort of right to suppress the speech of others is a very bad idea, both on its own terms and because of its possible implications for other speech restrictions. I’m sorry to see EPIC arguing in favor of such speech suppression.

אונאת דברים

From this week’s Parshah:

וְכִי-תִמְכְּרוּ מִמְכָּר לַעֲמִיתֶךָ, אוֹ קָנֹה מִיַּד עֲמִיתֶךָ–אַל-תּוֹנוּ, אִישׁ אֶת-אָחִיו.1

וְלֹא תוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת-עֲמִיתוֹ, וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹקיךָ: כִּי אֲנִי יְקוָק, אֱלֹקיכֶם.2

The Mishnah and Beraisa explain:

כשם שאונאה במקח וממכר כך אונאה בדברים לא יאמר לו בכמה חפץ זה והוא אינו רוצה ליקח אם היה בעל תשובה לא יאמר לו זכור מעשיך הראשונים אם הוא בן גרים לא יאמר לו זכור מעשה אבותיך שנאמר וגר לא תונה ולא תלחצנו:3

ת”ר לא תונו איש את עמיתו באונאת דברים הכתוב מדבר אתה אומר באונאת דברים או אינו אלא באונאת ממון כשהוא אומר וכי תמכרו ממכר לעמיתך או קנה מיד עמיתך הרי אונאת ממון אמור הא מה אני מקיים לא תונו איש את עמיתו באונאת דברים

הא כיצד אם היה בעל תשובה אל יאמר לו זכור מעשיך הראשונים אם היה בן גרים אל יאמר לו זכור מעשה אבותיך

אם היה גר ובא ללמוד תורה אל יאמר לו פה שאכל נבילות וטריפות שקצים ורמשים בא ללמוד תורה שנאמרה מפי הגבורה

אם היו יסורין באין עליו אם היו חלאים באין עליו או שהיה מקבר את בניו אל יאמר לו כדרך שאמרו לו חביריו לאיוב הלא יראתך כסלתך תקותך ותום דרכיך זכר נא מי הוא נקי אבד

אם היו חמרים מבקשין תבואה ממנו לא יאמר להם לכו אצל פלוני שהוא מוכר תבואה ויודע בו שלא מכר מעולם

ר”י אומר אף לא יתלה עיניו על המקח בשעה שאין לו דמים שהרי הדבר מסור ללב וכל דבר המסור ללב נאמר בו ויראת מאלקיך

א”ר יוחנן משום ר”ש בן יוחאי גדול אונאת דברים מאונאת ממון שזה נאמר בו ויראת מאלקיך וזה לא נאמר בו ויראת מאלקיך

ור’ אלעזר אומר זה בגופו וזה בממונו

רבי שמואל בר נחמני אמר זה ניתן להישבון וזה לא ניתן להישבון

תני תנא קמיה דרב נחמן בר יצחק כל המלבין פני חבירו ברבים כאילו שופך דמים א”ל שפיר קא אמרת דחזינא ליה דאזיל סומקא ואתי חוורא אמר ליה אביי לרב דימי במערבא במאי זהירי א”ל באחוורי אפי דאמר רבי חנינא הכל יורדין לגיהנם חוץ משלשה הכל ס”ד אלא אימא כל היורדין לגיהנם עולים חוץ משלשה שיורדין ואין עולין ואלו הן הבא על אשת איש והמלבין פני חבירו ברבים והמכנה שם רע לחבירו מכנה היינו מלבין אע”ג דדש ביה בשמיה

אמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר רבי יוחנן נוח לו לאדם שיבא על ספק אשת איש ואל ילבין פני חבירו ברבים מנ”ל מדדרש רבא דדרש רבא מאי דכתיב ובצלעי שמחו ונאספו קרעו ולא דמו אמר דוד לפני הקב”ה רבש”ע גלוי וידוע לפניך שאם היו מקרעים בשרי לא היה דמי שותת לארץ ולא עוד אלא אפילו בשעה שעוסקין בנגעים ואהלות אומרים לי דוד הבא על אשת איש מיתתו במה ואני אומר להם מיתתו בחנק ויש לו חלק לעוה”ב אבל המלבין את פני חבירו ברבים אין לו חלק לעוה”ב

(ואמר) מר זוטרא בר טוביה אמר רב ואמרי לה אמר רב חנא בר ביזנא אמר ר”ש חסידא ואמרי לה א”ר יוחנן משום רשב”י נוח לו לאדם שיפיל עצמו לכבשן האש ואל ילבין פני חבירו ברבים מנ”ל מתמר דכתיב היא מוצאת והיא שלחה אל חמיה4

כתיבת שם של משומד שחזר בתשובה

An interesting application of the injunction against אונאת דברים is the opinion that we do not mention in a גט the Gentile name of a Jewish apostate who has repented and returned to Judaism, to avoid humiliating and shaming the repentant individual:

מצאתי כתוב בתיקון בסדר גיטין ישן דמשומד שעשה תשובה שבא לגרש אין לכתוב בו כלל כל שום וחניכא כמו שעושים לשאר משומדים דאילו כתבו הוה כאילו אומרים לו זכור מעשיך הראשונים עכ”ל

ונראה שמזה למדו שלא לכתוב בגט שום כינוי שהוא גנאי ובושה למתכנה בו משום דאית ביה משום לא תונו ועוד דאין דרך לקרותו בכינוי זה לבד בלא עיקר שמו. כן נראה לי.

אמנם בסדר גיטין אחר מצאתי שצריך לכתוב כל שום אפילו היה משומד בילדותו והביא מעשה בזה וכתב שכן הסכימו מהרד”כ ומהרא”ף.

ובתשובת מוהר”ם פאדו”ה סימן ל”ה כתב בשם הרבה גדולים דאין לכתוב שם דגיות מאחר שעשה תשובה ולא כל שום וחניכא ועיי”ש שהאריך בזה.5

נוסח כתובה של בעולה

There is a similar dispute over the proper designation in the כתובה of a woman who is not a virgin (but neither a widow nor a divorcée); some Poskim argue against writing בעולתא, in sensitivity to the woman’s feelings. [This question was recently discussed in The Yeshiva World’s Coffee Room.]:

ואם היא אנוסה או מפותה. י”א כותבין סתם אמר לה להדא לאה ולא כותבין בעול’ כי גנאי הוא להזכיר זה וי”א שכותבין בעולת וכן נראה לי כדי לפרסומי לרבים שנבעלת כי שמא אסורה לכהן אף על גב דאמרה לכשר נבעלתי לאו מפיה אנו חיין דרוב פסולים אצלה ושמא נבעלה לגוי ואמר שמואל לרב יודא הלכה כר”ג ואת לא תעביד עובדא כו’ ואילו חילוקי דינים אין להאריך כאן אך נראה לי עיקר לכתוב בעולה כדי לפרסם למאן דקפיד קפיד …6

להדא בתולתא, … ואם היא אנוסה או מפותה יש כותבין סתם אמר לה להדא פלונית ואין כותבין בעולה, כי גנאי הוא לה להזכיר זה. ויש אומרים שצריכין לכתוב בעולה וכן עיקר, כדי לפרסם שנבעלה ושמא אסורה לכהן דנבעלת לפסול לזה, דעכשיו הרוב פסולים אצלה, שהרי יש גוים הרבה הפוסלים אותה לכהונה.7

כתב הב”ש ואם היא בעולה כותבין בעולתא עיין נחלת שבעה העלה שלא לכתוב בעולה וכן נלע”ד כי גדולה בושה והמלבין וכו’ ועיין סימן ס”ה א’ ואין לכתוב אלא פלונית ארוסה ודי בזה לסימן8

  1. ויקרא כה:יד – קשר []
  2. שם כה:יז []
  3. בבא מציעא נח: – קשר []
  4. שם נח.-:‏ []
  5. דרכי משה (מכון ירושלים תשנ”ד) אה”ע סימן קכ”ט אות כ”ב, ועיין לעיל בקיצור באות ז []
  6. שו”ת מהר”ם מינץ (לבוב תרי”א) סימן ק”ט (דיני כתובה) עמודים צח:-צט. – קשר, הובא בנחלת שבעה סימן י”ב אות ט”ו (ועיין שם באורך), ובכנסת הגדולה אה”ע סימן ס”ו הגהות טור אות מ”ד – קשר []
  7. לבוש אה”ע (הבוץ והארגמן) (ירושלים תשס”ד) שם סעיף ג []
  8. בית מאיר שם סעיף י”א. ועיין בקיצור בפתחי תשובה שם באמצע ס”ק ח’, ובאורך באוצר הפוסקים שם ס”ק קמ”ה וקמ”ו []