Wednesday, July 19, 2006

More on Mordecai Tendler and The Bloggers

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors. Defrocked Rabbi - Mordecai Tendler

Rabbi Drops Bid To Out Bloggers
Free speech appears to be on side of anonymous Web sites.
Jennifer Friedlin
Jewish Week
July 19, 2006

A group of anonymous bloggers that had published information on their Web sites about a disgraced Rockland County rabbi’s alleged sexual misconduct won a victory when the rabbi withdrew one of two petitions to subpoena their identities.

Rabbi Mordecai Tendler, the former leader of Kehillat New Hempstead in New Hempstead, N.Y., who has been accused of sexual harassment by former congregants, filed petitions both in Ohio and California district courts in an effort to force Google, the Internet giant that hosts the bloggers’ websites, to disclose their identities.

It was not immediately clear why Rabbi Tendler decided to withdraw the petition in Ohio and whether he would do the same in California. Neither he nor his lawyer returned calls seeking comment.

Rabbi Tendler was expelled last year for inappropriate conduct from membership in the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest Orthodox rabbinic association.

The bloggers’ attorney, Paul Alan Levy of Public Citizen, a Washington-based public interest organization, said Rabbi Tendler’s decision to withdraw the petition represented a victory for the First Amendment right to free speech. He also said that the decision reflected Rabbi Tendler’s inability to prove that the bloggers had defamed him.

“If he had had evidence of falsity and malice he could have gone forward against these folks,” said Levy, noting that as soon as the bloggers filed their motion claiming that Rabbi Tendler’s petition would violate their right to free speech, he withdrew his demand. Levy said the bloggers were moving ahead with a motion under California law that protects against so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation and would seek to have Rabbi Tendler required to cover the bloggers’ legal fees.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to set a federal standard regarding what a defamation plaintiff would have to show before an anonymous blogger could be unmasked, lower court decisions have so far set a high bar, demanding that plaintiffs clearly establish that the claims made against them are false before the online accuser can be outed.

“It’s a pretty high standard,” said David Hudson, research attorney for the First Amendment Center, an educational organization based in Nashville, Tenn., and Arlington, Va.

Within the Jewish world, anonymous blogs have become a touchstone for debate. Those in favor of anonymous blogging say they give people fighting for victims’ rights an advantage, particularly in the Orthodox community, much of which has proven unwilling to openly discuss and deal with issues of sexual abuse.

“The greatest ‘crime’ today in the Jewish world is not the number of agunot, it is not the sexual predators that have been allowed to prey on the vulnerable of our community,” wrote Jewish Whistleblower, one of the anonymous bloggers named in Rabbi Tendler’s petition, in an e-mail. “No, it is the crime of speaking out publicly against the corrupt leadership of our community and those that prey sexually on the vulnerable in our community.

“The Jewish community needs us bloggers simply because our leadership refuses to address these problems.”

In addition to Jewish Whistleblower, the other blogs Rabbi Tendler sought to expose through his petition are rabbinic integrity, jewish survivors and new hempstead news.

But critics of anonymous blogs said that they are unethical and do little to advance their own causes.

“It’s immoral to use a disguise to put the heat on other people,” said Steven I. Weiss, a blogger whose reporting on sexual abuse in the Orthodox world and other issues can be found at The Canonist.

Weiss noted that several Orthodox leaders, like Rabbi Yosef Blau, spiritual adviser at Yeshiva University, have been highly criticized for speaking out against abuse within the community and that by doing so they ultimately increased the credibility of their claims.

“That’s part of what credibility is: knowing the consequences for what you are saying and doing it anyway. Anonymous bloggers aren’t willing to live with the consequences,” Weiss said.

While undermining their own credibility, anonymous bloggers may in fact be protecting themselves legally. Robert Cox, president of the Media Bloggers Association, an organization of bloggers, said that one of the standards used in defamation cases is whether a reasonable person would believe a particular statement was true. However, given that blogs are held in lower esteem than many newspapers and magazines, such a standard may not be met in a defamation case against a blogger, particularly an anonymous one.

Cox said that although this issue has yet to be settled in court, bloggers might prove immune to claims of defamation “because nobody believes us.”

Widely believed or not, some anonymous bloggers say they are in fact having a great deal of impact and that they plan to continue blogging anonymously.

Earlier this year, Unorthodox Jew, one of the most controversial bloggers in the Orthodox community, located several alleged victims of Rabbi Yehuda Kolko, a teacher at Yeshiva and Mesivta Torah Temimah in Flatbush, Brooklyn, after he posted allegations against the rabbi and the head of the school. The anonymous postings eventually led to a lawsuit against the rabbi, the school and a summer camp.

UOJ says that before he posts any claims against anyone he conducts his own investigation, verifying the allegations with five sources. Once he’s satisfied that he has met his own standard, he posts the claims.

“’Free speech’ permits me to say ‘anything’ I feel is accurate,” UOJ wrote in an e-mail.

For now, no one is challenging him.


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