Communication Law & Ethics:

Communication Law & Ethics:

Chapters 1-3

what the test is based on:

Chapter One 1

The American Legal System

America has become a nation of laws, lawyers and lawsuits. Both the number of lawsuits being filed and the number of lawyers have doubled since the 1970s. California has about four times as many lawyers today as it had in 1975. Nationwide, there are more than a million attorneys. For good or ill, more people with grievances are suing somebody.

The media have not escaped this flood of litigation. The nation’s broadcasters, cable and satellite television providers, newspapers, magazines, wire services, Internet services and advertising agencies are constantly fighting legal battles. Today few media executives can do their jobs without consulting lawyers regularly. Moreover, legal problems are not just head- aches for top executives. Working media professionals run afoul of the law regularly, facing lawsuits and even jail sentences.

Million-dollar verdicts against the media are no longer unusual, and the big national media are by no means the only targets. For example, in 1980 one medium-size newspa- per in Idaho was ordered to pay $1.9 million in a libel case—not because the newspaper published a horribly libelous falsehood but merely because the paper refused to say who told a reporter where to find public records about wrongdoing by an insurance company. A higher court eventually set aside that ruling, but by then the paper had spent thousands of dollars on legal expenses to defend itself (Sierra Life v. Magic Valley Newspapers, 6 Media L. Rep. 1769). Likewise, those who do video production work, prepare advertising copy or post material on the Internet may risk lawsuits, and threats of lawsuits, for anything from libel to copyright infringement to invasion of privacy. More than ever before, a knowledge of media law is essential for a successful career in mass communications.

This textbook was written for communications students and media professionals, not for lawyers or law students. We will begin by explaining how the American legal system works.


Mass media law is largely based on court decisions. Even though Congress and the 50 state legislatures have enacted many laws affecting the media, the courts play the decisive role in interpreting those laws. For that matter, the courts also have the final say in interpret- ing the meaning of our most important legal document, the U.S. Constitution. The courts have the power to modify or even overturn laws passed by state legislatures and Congress, particularly when a law conflicts with the Constitution. In so doing, the courts have the power to establish legal precedent, handing down rules that other courts must ordinarily follow in deciding similar cases.

But not all court decisions establish legal precedents, and not all legal precedents are equally important as guidelines for later decisions. The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the country; its rulings are generally binding on all lower courts. On matters of state law the highest court in each of the 50 states (usually called the state supreme court) has the final say—unless one of its rulings somehow violates the U.S. Consti- tution. On federal matters the U.S. Courts of Appeals rank just below the U.S. Supreme Court. All of these courts are appellate courts; cases are appealed to them from trial courts.

Trial vs. appellate courts. There is an important difference between trial and appellate courts. While appellate courts make precedent-setting decisions that interpret the meaning of law, trial courts are responsible for deciding factual issues such as the guilt or innocence

Copyright 2016 Cengage Learning. All Rights Reserved. May not be copied, scanned, or duplicated, in whole or in part. Due to electronic rights, some third party content may be suppressed from the eBook and/or eChapter(s). Editorial review has deemed that any suppressed content does not materially affect the overall learning experience. Cengage Learning reserves the right to remove additional content at any time if subsequent rights restrictions require it.

2 The American Legal System




a case that other courts rely on when deciding future cases with similar facts or issues.


appellate court:


a court to which a find- ing from a lower court may be appealed.


questions of fact:


resolutions of factual disputes that are decided by a jury.




to send back to a lower court for evaluation based on new legal rules.


of a person accused of a crime. This fact-finding process does not normally establish legal precedents. The way a judge or jury decides a given murder trial, for instance, sets no precedent at all for the next murder trial. The fact that one alleged murderer may be guilty doesn’t prove the guilt of the next murder suspect.


In civil (i.e., non-criminal) lawsuits, this is also true. A trial court may have to decide whether a newspaper or broadcaster libeled the local mayor by falsely accusing the mayor of wrongdoing. Even if the media did—and if the mayor wins his or her lawsuit—that doesn’t prove the next news story about a mayoral scandal is also libelous. Each person suing for libel—like each person charged with a crime—is entitled to his or her own day in court.


Finding facts. The trial courts usually have the final say about these questions of fact. An appellate court might rule that a trial court misapplied the law to a given factual situation, but the appellate court doesn’t ordinarily reevaluate the facts on its own. Instead, it sends the case back (remands) to the trial court with instructions to reassess the facts under new legal rules written by the appellate court. For instance, an appellate court might decide that a certain piece of evidence was illegally obtained and cannot be used in a murder trial. It will order the trial court to reevaluate the factual issue of guilt or innocence, this time completely disregarding the illegally obtained evidence. The appellate court’s ruling may well affect the outcome of the case, but it is still the job of the trial court to decide the factual question of guilt or innocence, just as it is the job of the appellate court to set down rules on such legal issues as the admissibility of evidence.


This is not to say trial courts never make legal (as opposed to fact-finding) decisions: they do so every time they apply the law to a factual situation. But when a trial court issues an opinion on a legal issue, that opinion usually carries little weight as legal precedent.


Sometimes there is high drama in the trial courtroom, and that may result in extensive media coverage. One trial verdict may even inspire (or discourage) more lawsuits of the same kind. Still, the outcome of a trial rarely has long-term legal significance. On the other hand, a little-noticed appellate court decision may funda- mentally alter the way we live. That is why law textbooks such as this one concentrate on appellate court decisions, especially U.S. Supreme Court decisions.




Because the courts play such an important role in shaping the law, the structure of the court system itself deserves some explana- tion. Fig. 1 shows how the state and federal courts are organized. In the federal system, there is a nationwide network of trial courts


Copyright 2016 Cengage Learning. All Rights Reserved. May not be copied, scanned, or duplicated, in whole or in part. Due to electronic rights, some third party content may be suppressed from the eBook and/or eChapter(s). Editorial review has deemed that any suppressed content does not materially affect the overall learning experience. Cengage Learning reserves the right to remove additional content at any time if subsequent rights restrictions require it.

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