At the University of North Carolina, every journalism student has to pass Mass Communication Law before graduating. From doctoral candidates to lowly broadcast undergraduates (like I was), every student tackles the infamous rigor of swapping their usual hands-on, skills-based courses for a class coated in legal theory and statutory interpretation.

But Dr. Cathy Packer, media law professor and faculty co-director for the UNC Center for Media Law and Policy, insists that a legal journalism course is more practical than students think. “It’s in the toolbox. You go out – you know how to take a photo, write a story, do an interview, and you know how to use the law to stay out of trouble and get what you want.”

UNC is far from the only school emphasizing legal training for its graduate students. Columbia, Northwestern, Stanford, Berkeley, and the University of Maryland are just a few universities with well-known journalism programs requiring graduate students to take a course in media law. The courses usually cover general First Amendment press law, alongside topics such as defamation, privacy, copyright, source confidentiality and open records law.

Brett Cione is the associate director of admissions and financial aid at Columbia Journalism School. “We want to train [students] the right way, so when they’re out working in the career they’ve chosen, they know any sort of legal ramifications if something were to happen,” Cione said.

At the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, few graduate students come from journalism backgrounds, said lecturer Diana Huffman. Most students certainly do not have a strong undergraduate training in media law, and benefit from the First Amendment press law focus of the graduate course, Huffman said. Though graduate students with press law backgrounds are allowed to waive the course, Huffman said few have been successful.

The Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern allows graduate students a similar opportunity by providing an optional media law test. Those who pass may exempt the required ethics and law course – but few pass the rigorous exam. “Only a few students took [the exemption test], but one of the students had just had a course covering the material less than 12 months ago,” said Janice Castro, Senior Director of Graduate Education at Medill. “He failed the test.”

Castro said the required ethics and law course has been a vital part of the Medill graduate curriculum for decades. “It’s extremely important for journalists to understand the framework of the laws within which they work.” Medill professor Joe Mathewson said requiring journalists to take a legal course is simply obvious. “This is all so elementary, my dear Watson,” Mathewson said. “You’ve got to have a grip on this stuff.”

A grounded education in the state of media law is vital for fledgling journalists to succeed, especially in a world where freelance journalism is so prevalent through digital media and user submission to established news sites. Also, as more traditional news outlets have fewer resources, the luxury of phoning a lawyer isn’t always available, UNC’s Dr. Packer said. “It’s really, really important for students to have that working knowledge of media law, because chances are they’re not going to have anyone to help them,” Packer said. Recruiting new journalists with a grounded view of media law is vital for news outlets to successfully to operate as the fourth estate while budgets shrink.

Right now may be an especially crucial time for journalists to know their access rights. “You have to be aware these days that the Obama administration has been pursuing journalists for publishing things that they didn’t steal – that someone provided to them, but was classified information,” Northwestern’s Mathewson said.

Diana Huffman, at Maryland, said the biggest problem for journalists now is “the dismal record of [the Obama] administration on transparency and the fact that they have gone after more leakers in Obama’s term than in presidents put together before.”

But some schools are sticking to their guns on not requiring graduate students to take a course in media law before receiving their degrees.

Both the Missouri School of Journalism and the University of Wisconsin—Madison place academic flexibility first. Wisconsin professor Robert Drechsel said the school prides itself on having a flexible masters course, and many of its graduate journalism students do not take a media law course. “They aren’t required to, and that’s the way things have always been here,” Drechsel said. Mizzou’s communication law course is also optional, and graduate academic adviser Martha Pickens said most graduate students choose not to take the course.

All journalists should be trained and well prepared to deal with day-to-day legal issues. Knowing how to navigate Freedom of Information Act requests, or whether fair use would negate a copyright claim, should be taught alongside digital editing and news reporting in graduate journalism programs. Expanding the legal section of every new journalist’s toolkit should be a vital priority for journalism graduate schools.

Cydney Swofford is a J.D. candidate, ’15, at the NYU School of Law.

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