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Does Jewish law have a clear position on freedom of speech?

On the one hand, the Talmud itself testifies to such freedom (within broad bounds): Minority opinions are cited, followed by the majority opinion. On the other hand, many forms of speech are not allowed: false witnessing, other forms of lying, lashon hara', etc.:

Mishna: Four things for which punishment is exacted in this world, while the principal punishment remains intact for him in the World to Come: Idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder. And Lashon Hara' is equal to them all. [Peah 8a]

Do the sources having anything else on the question?

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    Define "free speech". Because even though lashon hara is assur, I don't think a beis din can prosecute you for it. – ezra Oct 24 '18 at 17:16
  • Speech as defined (over time) by the first amendment to the US Constitution. So far, speech prohibited in the US includes: Public obscenity, defamation, incitement to riot or to illegal actions, terrorist threats, false advertising, perjury, disclosing privileged information such as trade secrets or classified information, "shouting 'Fire' in a crowded theater", and others. States may have other restrictions. – Maurice Mizrahi Oct 24 '18 at 17:18
  • מילה בסלע משתוקא בתרין – Double AA Oct 24 '18 at 17:52
  • @ezra IMSMC an ed echad gets lashes for lashon hara. – Loewian Oct 24 '18 at 18:22
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    It appears to be a good intent in your question, but it is unclear what you ask about as you already know of many forms of speech that are prohibited. – Al Berko Oct 24 '18 at 18:26
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These laws certainly don't agree with the American idea of Freedom of Speech, in the sense of being free to be disrespectful and irreverent against any authority.

Yet, respectfully expressed dissenting views are encouraged.

There is an entire tractate (Horayos) about how to appropriate deal with authority figures that are wrong, sin, or make mistakes.

This may also be instructive:

Rambam Pirush Hamishnah, Avos, ch. 1 Mishna 16 (15)

[King Solomon] the wisest of all men stated, “In the multitude of words there wants not transgression; [but he that refrains his lips is wise].” The reason for this is that most words are unnecessary and sinful, as we will now explain. For, if a man will speak in abundance, he will surely sin. Because there will be among his words something that is not proper to say. Therefore, one of the signs of the wise is they use few words. It states, “silence is a guard for wisdom.” On the other hand, abundant speech is the sign of foolishness, at is says, “and the voice of the fool is with abundant words.” And the sages already declared that few words indicates great stature and good lineage, as they said, “one of good lineage is the silent one.”

The books of ethics recount how a teacher was exceedingly silent, only speaking a little. They asked him, “Why are you so quiet?” He answered, “I dissected this matter of speech and found that it divides into four categories:

  • The first – speech that is completely harmful, with no benefit. Like cursing and foul language. Such speech is a complete stupidity.

  • The second – speech that has both harm and benefit. For example, flattering someone to gain something from him, but that praise will
    anger his enemies that will harm the one being praised. In such a
    case, one must forgo the benefit and refrain from such speech, as
    well.

  • The third—speech that has neither benefit, nor harm. This is regular speech of laymen: [Discussing news such as] construction of the city wall, or that a certain palace was erected, describing the beauty of a certain house, and the abundant crops of a certain country, and other such permitted speech. Yet, these words are also unnecessary, and have no benefit.

  • The fourth—words that are completely beneficial. Such discussion of wisdom and purpose, and words that are necessary for him to maintain
    his life and continue his existence. Such matters are fitting to
    discuss. Thus, whenever I hear words I scrutinize them: and if I find they are from the fourth category, I will speak it, and if they are
    from the other groups, I keep silent.

The masters of ethics replied: study this man and his wisdom, for he defers from three-fourths of speech, and this is wisdom that one should accustom himself.

And I say that according to our Torah, speech divides into five categories:

  1. that which we are commanded to speak,
  2. the forbidden,
  3. the disgusting,
  4. the beloved,
  5. and the permitted.

    The first group, that which we are commanded to speak: reading the Torah and > learning and analyzing it. This is a positive commandment: “and you shall speak about them” just like any other commandment. This was already encouraged by so many teachings that this work cannot contain them.

    The second group, forbidden speech: This is speech that we are warned against, such as bearing false testimony, lying, and tale bearing, libeling, and cursing. Torah verses discuss this group, and it includes foul language and speaking ill of another.

    The third group is disgusting speech: These are words that have no benefit for man, nor purpose, such as average speech relating news, happenings, or what some king did in his palace, or why someone died, or why someone became rich. And such words are dubbed “idle chatter” by the wise. And men of excellence try to refrain from such speech. It was said about Rav, student of R. Chiya, that he never spoke an idle word all his days. Included in this category is also a person disparaging a virtue, or extolling a vise, whether moral or intellectual.

    The fourth category is the beloved: This is speaking the praise of virtues of intellect or morals, and disparaging vises of both categories. As well as pointing the soul to these virtues through stories and songs, and refraining from bad in these ways. Likewise, to praise great people and to extol their qualities, in order that others appreciate their actions and follow their ways. And to condemn lowly and evil people, so that others despise their deeds and their memory, and distance themselves from them, and will not follow their ways. Some call this “derech eretz” “civility.”

    The fifth group, the permitted: This is speech that a person needs for business and his livelihood, to eat, and to drink, and his clothes, and all his needs. This is permitted—not beloved and not despised. Rather, if he wants, he may speak what he wants, and if he desires he may be silent. In this category, it is praiseworthy to be sparing, and ethical works warn against excessive speech. But that which is forbidden or despised, need no elaboration or command: it is obviously worthy to completely refrain from them. However, that which is a command and beloved, if a person could speak of them all his days, this is the best. Nevertheless, these should be accompanied by two conditions.

    The first: that his actions match his words, as its says, “beautiful are words that come from those who live by them.” About this it says, “learning is not the main thing, rather deeds.” And the wise would say to an ethical person teaching ethics, “teach, and it is fitting for you to teach.” And the prophet states, “Rejoice O righteous in G-d, for the upright it is fitting to praise [Him].”

    The second: brevity. One should try to have the most content in the least words, not the opposite. As the sages taught, “one should always teach his students concisely.”

  • Thanks, that was most illuminating. I note that under "disgusting speech" the Rambam includes "why someone died". This is very relevant to my earlier question about "When does speculation become lashon hara?" (Re Nadav and Avihu.) Do you know the Rambam's source for saying so? – Maurice Mizrahi Oct 24 '18 at 20:08
  • It seems to come from his definition: "Words that have no benefit or purpose." See Yoma 19b: Rava said: One who engages in idle chatter violates a positive commandment, as it is stated: And you shall talk of them; talk of them and not of other matters. Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov said: Furthermore, one even violates a negative commandment, as it is stated: “All wearisome matters; no man can speak them” (Ecclesiastes 1:7). – Benyomin Walters Oct 24 '18 at 20:49
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Mr. Walters's answer is quite comprehensive!

There are two other areas that imply limits on freedom of speech. Pirkei Avot 1:17 gives a general admonition towards "excessive" speech:

Shimon, his son, says, "All my days I grew up among the Sages, and I did not find anything good for the body except silence. And the exposition [of Torah] is not what is essential, but the action. And whoever increases words brings sin."

The last sentence is hard to understand within the context of the rest of the advice. The first sentence seems to advise not to talk at all. The second implies do more than study. And the third sentence implies if you talk "too much", you lead to sin.

Barternura explains the last two concepts:

If you don't practice what you teach, you would have been better off being silent. That seems to be one example of "excessive speech".

The second explanation (from Sefaria):

"and anyone who increases words, brings sin": As such have we found with Chava, who increased words and said, “God said, 'Do not eat from it and do not touch it,'” and added touching, about which she was not forbidden. And the snake pushed her until she touched it and said to her, “In the same way as there is no death from touching, so [too] is there no death from eating.” And from this, she came to sin, as she ate from the fruit. This is what Shlomo said (Proverbs 30:6), “Do not add to His words, lest He reprove you and you be found a liar."

Devarim 23:24 says - "Watch what comes out from your lips".

While this expression is related to vows, namely that you must fulfill and commit to your (verbal) vows, (similar to the above that suggests that you should do what you teach), you could probably apply this expression to general behavior. I.e. - speak nicely. If you promise to do something (even if not a "vow") you should keep your word.

Regarding vows, one or two verses prior to the one I mentioned says, "If you cease to vow, there will be no sin". Again, this is in line with what Pirkei Avot says, "excessive speech leads to sin", as in the case of a vow that you can't fulfill!

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