This article is adapted from my upcoming sefer,“Shmiras Haloshon in Today’s World”. All halachos mentioned herein are complex and part of a larger framework. The purpose of the article is to raise awareness of these essential halachos. Hence, one should not draw any practical conclusions without first consulting a rav.
Although we established in the previous article that the dispensation of apei tlasa (loshon hora spoken in front of three people) is rarely relevant, there is some practical significance to the concept. The Chofetz Chaim indicates in numerous places that one may indeed relate information that has become a davar mefursam (public information). In contrast to information related b’apei tlasa, which is merely projected to become public, the publicity has already been actualized by a davar mefursam. Indeed, there is reason to argue that the dispensation to relate public information is endorsed by all opinions and is not subject to the limitations pertaining to apei tlasa.
No Intention to Spread the Information
Notwithstanding the dispensation to relate public information without adhering to the many limitations of apei tlasa, the restriction mentioned that it may only be related casually, when the speaker has no intention of spreading the word — still applies. (We mentioned there that some understand this limitation differently. They maintain that the main qualification necessary is that the speaker not intend to degrade the subject of the information.)
Not Adding a Negative Slant
Furthermore, sometimes the information that is public knowledge is not necessarily negative, and there is room to judge the subject favorably. In such a case, one who presents the information with negative connotations has certainly violated the prohibition of loshon hora.
Example: Mr. Goldman, a religious senator, voted against a certain law. Binyamin comments to his friend, “Goldman made a poor decision. There are so many factors that he did not take into consideration.” Such speech is highly questionable. It is true that Mr. Goldman’s decisions are public knowledge, but it is probably not definitively clear that he is making an unwise decision. Indeed, Chazal comment that even if all of the heavens were scrolls, the seas ink, the reeds quills, and the people scribes, it would still be impossible to write down all of the considerations that government officials take into account when making a decision. The layman is generally not aware of everything involved. When Binyamin presented the decision as a poor one, he added a negative slant to neutral, public information.
Note that this example illustrates a prevalent subject of conversation that inevitably leads to loshon hora: politics. One who expresses his opinion on matters of public leadership is treading on very thin ice. Discussing politics is usually forbidden even when discussing something known to the public. As demonstrated in the example above, people who speak about politics usually add a negative slant which renders their words full-fledged loshon hora.
Not Exaggerating, Embellishing, or Adding
Moreover, even in cases in which it is permissible to pass on negative public information, one must exercise extreme caution not to exaggerate or embellish the information. He may only relate the information as it is, without adding a single word. Tragically, it is all too common for those who rely on this dispensation to lose sight of this condition, causing their words to become bona fide loshon hora, and sometimes, even motzi shem ra (slander).
Furthermore, one may not add details that are not publicly known, even when the bulk of the information is well known.
Only Where the Information Has Spread
According to the Chofetz Chaim, it is only permissible to relate public information in the same city that the information originated in. However, he wrote this in the nineteenth century, when it was not assumed that information would spread outside its place of origin. Today, this depends on the situation. Due to the advent of modern means of communication, information spreads easily across the world. This should negate the aforementioned limitation. However, this only applies to information that is of global interest. Information that would not interest people outside of a certain community will probably not spread outside of that particular community (even though it is theoretically accessible to the world at large), due to lack of interest. This concept is clearly be affected by a broad range of factors, and a case-by-case assessment is necessary to determine where any given piece of information constitutes public knowledge.
A Visitor from Another Locale
It is now necessary to clarify an important, basic point. When something is considered public knowledge in a certain place, one is permitted to reveal it to someone who is not yet aware of the information. The basic definition of loshon hora includes causing the spread of negative information. If the information would have been spread regardless, the speaker does not violate the prohibition of loshon hora. However, the Poskim do not discuss whether one may reveal the information to a visitor from a place where the information is not public. In such a case, it appears to the author that the halachah would depend on whether or not it is expected that the visitor would discover the information during his stay where the information is public. Discovering the information is dependent on a variety of factors and requires a case-by-case assessment.
Precisely Defining Public Information
The exact definition of “public information” still requires precise guidelines. If the information is only known to a few people, it is certainly not considered public. (Instead, it falls into the category of apei tlasa, as explained in the previous article). On the other hand, if the vast majority of people in a locale are aware of the information, it is certainly considered public, even if a small minority remains unaware.
What if it is known by more than just a few people? How many people must be aware of the information for it to be considered public knowledge? Let us suggest the following definition of public information: any information that has been presented publicly and is known to a significant number of people.