Ethics and Legal Issues Syllabus
First learn the meaning of what you say, and then speak.
Welcome to Comm 307: Media Law and Ethics
We’ll spend our semester together discussing communication ethics and legal issues. That is, we’ll be exploring some personal and collective ways in which we attempt to balance individual rights with the public good, creativity with historical integrity, marketing with consumer protection, and any number of other competing interests.
As future communication professionals, you need a clear awareness of the legal parameters within which you will be working, but as Philip Seib and Kathy Fitzpatrick remind us in Journalism Ethics, “although the law provides a good starting point, it simply does not go far enough to establish the principles on which ethical issues should be resolved.” (11)[i] To become a professional with the highest ethical standards, you’ll need to do a fair amount of reflecting on your values and priorities and how they apply within a range of situations. As Elder Christofferson reminded us in the October 2009 General Conference, “In the end, it is only an internal moral compass in each individual that can effectively deal with the root causes as well as the symptoms of societal decay.”[ii]
This course will provide ample freedom for each of us to probe and refine our ethical convictions and standards, to fine-tune our internal compasses. Let’s enjoy the journey!
Everything yields to diligence.
A few notes regarding the course:
- This is a rigorous course. This course uses the 9-12 hours a week required for a 3 credit course. Please consider the time demands carefully before you commit to the class.
- We emphasize close reading of a difficult subject matter. Our repeated effort will be to discern the essential principles that underlie any given argument, particularly those of Supreme Court justices and respected philosophers.
- Tasks include both individual and team assignments. Being a focused, eager team member is vital to your success in the course.
The real voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.
— Marcel Proust
It can be exhilarating to engage in the public discourse that surrounds us as well as in shaping the social realities that give form and content to our personal and professional lives. The skills we’re seeking to acquire and refine in this class will leave us better equipped to so engage.
By the end of this course, you will be able to:
- Understand and use legal terminology insofar as necessary to comprehend the principles that underlie relevant laws and the types of arguments that constitute legal opinion.
- Identify and understand fundamental legal and ethical issues associated with libel, privacy, intellectual property and commercial communication cases.
- Apply principles central to the Society for Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics to situations likely to arise in a professional communication setting in order to determine what is at stake and to identify appropriate courses of personal and organizational action.
- Develop a personal view of how gospel principles, specific ethical perspectives and laws governing public communication can be balanced and/or prioritized in a manner conducive to problem solving and leadership.
- Your task this semester is to increase your understanding of media ethics and legal issues. That’s quite different than becoming a legal expert or even becoming highly conversant in issues that arise when media and law intersect. Rather, each of you should be working to increase your understanding of the law for at least two reasons:
- So you can eventually serve your employer well without creating legal issues for him/her.
- So you can deepen your sensitivity to ethics, which will allow you to practice your profession with integrity, consistency and a clear conscience.
- As a communication professional, you will encounter ethical dilemmas daily. Defining your working principles will help you define you as a professional and as a person.
- Each of us not only lacks a good deal of the knowledge we need in order to meet standards of professional excellence, but we are unaware that we lack it. Each of us is, to some degree, blind to our specific areas of ignorance. This semester we’ll try to move up the scale of knowledge, to climb from the level of unknown-unknown (meaning we don’t know that we don’t know something of relevance in our field) to known-unknown (meaning while we may not fully understand a given concept or principle, we are at least aware of it and its relevance) to the level of known-known (meaning we actually know something of relevance to our field and we know that we know it).
- After the introductory unit, the semester will break into four major units, between which we’ll pause to consider a case study of significant length. The four major units—libel, privacy, intellectual property (IP), and commercial speech—reflect the realities you will certainly encounter in your professional lives. Thorny legal issues arise in each of these areas, so it’s vital to be acquainted with the laws pertaining to them.
- Finally, the assignments this semester should facilitate the movement from where you are right now to the higher levels on the scale of knowledge. The assignments have two underlying intentions:
- To provide you with “real world” opportunities to build and demonstrate creativity, critical thinking, writing skills and interpersonal communication strategies.
- To invite you to become a principled arguer who thinks independently and foresees the need to be your own best advocate.
Course Policies / Expectations
- Keep up with the assigned reading. There’s really no way around this. If we are absent of a reasonable grasp of each relevant text, we’re left to depend on the preconceptions and opinions of others. The point of this course is to assist you in formulating your own understanding and views. Hence, you need to read each assignment closely.
- Submit your work on time. Because of the type of assignments and the connection throughout the learning process of each unit, there can be no late work.
- Come prepared to participate. Let’s view our group meetings as a miniature marketplace of ideas. I’m a firm believer that everyone has insights worth sharing. Please don’t hold back!
- Develop a standard of professionalism. Communication professionals must attend to both the content and the technical presentation of their work. This class will reflect that reality.
A Few Key Concepts
Levels of Values
Part of what makes the ethical decision-making process so challenging is the difficulty of reconciling competing values on the deepest possible level. A given course of action may look acceptable when viewed from a legal standpoint, rather different when considered in terms of professional ethical standards and even more so when assessed in light of gospel standards.
Throughout the semester, you’ll be strongly encouraged to consider the layered nature of ethical decision-making and to use gospel principles to illuminate complex and ambiguous situations that sometimes call for quick decisions.
Means of Persuasion
You will read portions of several Supreme Court decisions this semester. Additionally, you’ll create arguments in support of your individual responses. Understanding and creating arguments successfully depends on your ability to recognize and employ the three primary means of persuasion. Logos refers to the rational dimension of an argument, the principles upon which conclusions are based and the evidence that substantiates assertions. Pathos refers to the values and emotions that make an argument meaningful within a given social context. Ethos refers to the character of the person arguing and to the credibility the arguer derives from his/her knowledge, experience and ability to connect with an audience.
Levels of Knowledge
As we launch into this challenging and invigorating subject together, it’s important to remember our objective is not to become legal experts. Rather, each of should make strides toward becoming intelligent, proficient, highly principled communication professionals. While it’s essential that you learn about the key elements associated with issues of libel, privacy, intellectual property and commercial communication, as a practicing professional, you’ll seek the advice of a legal expert when making a judgment about which you’re uncertain. It is vital, however, that you understand the legal terrain well enough to know what you know and recognize what you do not know.
Throughout the semester, I hope you’ll observe your understanding of key concepts and principles move up the above scale of knowledge.
You will need to acquire a copy of the text for this course: Mass Media Law, 19th ed., by Don R. Pember and Clay Calvert, McGraw-Hill Education (E-Book ISBN-13: 978-1259301568; Paperback ISBN-13: 978-0077861421). Compare prices for your textbooks through the University Store Price Comparison site. It will show you all of the options from the University Store plus options to help you find the best price.
The approximate cost for this course will depend on the text book you get.
The libel, privacy, intellectual property and commercial expression units will open with a quick check of your existing knowledge. The ideas and concepts included are all relevant to your ability to navigate in the world of professional communication without making serious legal missteps.
Hopefully, as the unit progresses, you’ll feel your upward movement on that scale. The more relevant concepts you can move out of the unknown/unknown category, the better off you’ll be.
We’ll look at case studies this semester. It’s one thing to see a principle clearly when you’re looking at it in the abstract. But experience is always harder, and it’s experience that teaches us what’s really at stake when we make a decision about what and how to communicate.
The case studies we examine will draw out the ethical dimension of those decisions. What is the right thing to do? How do you know? Answering these questions in a meaningful way demands principled reasoning. Answering well also indicates that you've considered multiple points of view and that empathy is part of your decision-making process.
The cases will give us the opportunity to expand our reach of empathy at the same time we balance competing principles in order to reach a well-reasoned, professional and personally defensible position.
At the end of each unit, you’ll be asked to freewrite about a case or topic we've been discussing. Freewrites are meant to be exploratory and wide open. The stakes are low, and the freedom is high. You’ll submit your freewrites, but you should also collect them as you go. You’ll refine one freewrite and submit it as a polished sample of your writing at the end of the semester.
You will complete four exams this semester. These exams are less about memorizing cases and outcomes and more about learning how to think critically and independently, read closely and reason through complex legal questions. Thus, the number of questions is low relative to the time allowed. You’ll be free to use your textbook or any other resource (apart from another person) to answer the questions.
While appeals are not really a separate assignment, they will play a significant role in the grades you receive on the exams.
- Exam Appeals: Exam appeals are REQUIRED. Each time you complete an exam, you’ll be required to appeal your grade.
After each exam closes, the correct answers will be displayed until the appeal is due. You may find that you disagree with some of the correct answers. More likely, you may find a question or two you believe is phrased in an ambiguous way or that allows for more than one correct response. In these cases you can appeal for full credit. You must explain your reasoning and show that your answer is grounded in textbook material.
In other instances, you’ll see that your original answer isn't correct, though perhaps it seemed to make sense originally. Given more time and consideration, however, you can understand why the highlighted answer is better. In this case, you can appeal for partial credit. Again, explanation is required for your appeal to be considered.
Appeals must be submitted on time using the required appeals form. Please keep in mind no exam score will be recorded until your appeals form is submitted.
Please don’t be shy about asking questions! If you’d like further explanation regarding any of these assignments, just holler!
|Exams (including Appeals)||4||@100||400|
|Personal Ethics Statement||1||@20||20|
A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.
— Nelson Mandela
[i] Seib, Philip, and Kathy Fitzpatrick. Journalism Ethics. Fort Worth.
[ii] Christofferson, D. Todd. “Moral Discipline.” Ensign Nov. 2009.