Deciding Communication Law: Key Cases in Context

Deciding Communication Law: Key Cases in Context

Deciding Communication Law: Key Cases in Context

Deciding Communication Law: Key Cases in Context


This clearly written and well-focused volume combines concise decisions of the primary areas of communication law with the foundational case decisions in those domains. Thus, in one volume, students of communication law, constitutional law, political science, and related fields find both the key rulings that define each area of law and a detailed summary of the legal concepts, doctrines, and policies so vital to understanding the rulings within their legal context. The text forgoes the tendency to provide encyclopedic treatment of all the relevant cases and focuses instead on the two or three cases most vital to an accurate and informed understanding of the current state of each field of communication law. The chapters provide readers with the most salient concepts and the necessary depth to understand the law while permitting most: reading time to be directed to the law itself. Full-text rulings allow readers to immerse themselves in the law itself--to develop a feel for its complexity, its flexibility, and its language. Useful as a quick reference to the landmark rulings and the jurisprudence of communication law, this book also serves well as the primary text in related undergraduate courses or as a supplemental text in graduate classes in the field.


The U. S. Constitution is based on the Enlightenment principle that the people are sovereign, the ultimate source of authority. That document, the world's oldest written national constitution, created a government of limited powers and recognized certain rights. The text still says Congress makes all federal laws and shall make “no law” abridging freedom of the press. Beyond that, what is protected and what is not by the press guarantee has been subject to debate.

Final decisions about the freedom to exchange ideas and information had to be left either to the officeholders the founders so profoundly distrusted or to anyone who had a means of communication. Some researchers have argued that the term “freedom of the press” had a very narrow meaning in the eighteenth century and that officials were left with the power to determine what is acceptable. Others have concluded that the expression of a sovereign people cannot be restricted by their servants in government and have contended that suppression is unconstitutional.

Scholars may disagree about the original boundaries of the press clause, but it remains possible to believe that “no law” means “no law” or, at least, that the Constitution forbids governmental control of privately produced media content. Individuals may sue communicators for violations of their rights, but if the First Amendment means what it plainly says, then the three official branches of government were given no authority over the choices made by the unofficial fourth branch, an independent press. Freedom may involve inconvenience and risk, but unfettered thought and expression are so essential to democracy that they must be protected to the fullest extent possible. Tolerance of the unconventional and the annoying is necessary not only because of the respect due to individual rights, but also because today's radical can be tomorrow's visionary. The founders themselves challenged the status quo and wanted to preserve for posterity the rights they exercised.

In practice, of course, the temptations can be great to find exceptions to any liberty. The press protection that eighteenth-century Americans demanded and ratified has been under siege ever since. As James Madison said, the mere “parchment barriers” of the Constitution are subject to the pressures of the moment. If the founders preferred to let the press make its own decisions, they surely would be displeased by the escalation of First Amendment conflicts that began in the early twentieth century as government and corporate power grew.

Since the eighteenth century, the nation's mass communication infrastructure has expanded enormously. No longer limited to lumbering, hand-operated printing presses, people can send messages across the planet with the tap of a finger. A substantial portion of the American . . .

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