As part of a continuing series on Spring 2019 semester courses that relate to innovation and business, this post spotlights Media Law.

If the 2016 presidential election taught us anything, it’s the importance of how the media portrays what it wants to portray. But what exactly is “the media?” In Media Law, this important question (and more!) is addressed.

Cristina Tilley, a professor at Iowa Law, explained that these fundamental questions pop up in all portions of the course. As Professor Tilley noted, it’s important to consider what the phrases of the First Amendment really mean, and who those phrases should cover. For example, when someone posts on Instagram or Twitter are they acting as “the press?” And does an algorithm that returns search results count as “speech?” We can understand constitutionally protected categories to be elastic or inelastic. However, there are consequences for each. “If it’s too elastic,” Professor Tilley said, “the category will have less bite.” The opposite is true, of course; if the category is too narrow it may leave important players unprotected. By first exploring the answers to these questions, students in Media Law are able to fully comprehend how constitutional and statutory provisions can empower or inhibit the media.

Students in the course will also go beyond the First Amendment and discuss positive laws that apply to the media. For example, students will learn about the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which regulates which participants in the online community can be held liable for certain kinds of content. “Students will also trace the history of interaction between tort common law and the Constitution,” Professor Tilley observed. “It used to be easier to hold the media liable for tort harm, but evolution in the law has increasingly shielded the media from liability.” Students will evaluate whether this development results in better or worse information in the marketplace. Students will also consider whether the quality of information the media puts out should inform the type of protections society wants to give the media, an especially relevant conversation after the 2016 elections. Given the current environment of “fake news,” now is an excellent time to stop and ask ourselves whether we have the media we want, and how we can or should influence that. “My hope is that people will become a little more aware of the legal and marketplace architecture that has put us where we are today,” Professor Tilley said, “with the sense that both as lawyers and citizens they have the tools to either effect change if necessary or to defend the current environment.”

Professor Tilley also noted that the course is relevant for all students, not just those interested in journalism or the media. “Pretty much any corporate client is engaging in some kind of regular media presence, so you want to have an understanding of what privileges and strictures apply to that kind of activity,” Professor Tilley explained. Also, given the rise of social media, people are engaging more and more as “media players” on an individual level, whether they write their own blog, or simply post a comment on a Facebook post.

Professor Tilley hopes that students will use the weekly readings as a basis to explore cutting-edge issues for their research paper. Students can receive up to two faculty-supervised writing credits for the course.

Amanda Marincic -- October 23, 2017

Course Description 

This course aims to give students a basic overview of the law that applies to mass media, citizen media, and social media. Throughout the course, we will consider how the law has attempted to define “the media,” and how it has distinguished between distribution platforms in its treatment of media rights and obligations. We will begin by studying the American press and notions of press freedom at the time of the founding. We will track the evolution of law governing injuries inflicted by speakers, beginning with the common-law treatment of libel and slander, and then turning to the constitutionalization of those torts. We will examine the law that applies to various journalistic tools, such as undercover reporting, anonymous sources, and right of access to documents and events. We will also consider special problems of jurisdiction and choice of law posed by online news. We will conclude by examining market influence on content, and by comparing the American system with other countries’ approaches to media law.

Evaluation will be conducted primarily through preparation of a two-draft paper examining in depth a self- selected media topic; the paper will count for one writing credit.

Schedule Information

Thursday, 2:30 – 4:30