For reasons that are unclear, I get an invitation every year to attend the Loyola “Journalist Law School.” No, not to teach, but to learn. Because it’s not like I’m, you know, a lawyer or anything.
The challenge of reporting on the legal system without a law degree is daunting. To help support journalists who cover the courts on national, regional or local levels, the Civil Justice Program at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, has developed the journalist law program consisting of a four-day intensive seminar on the legal system.
Putting aside the fact that whoever sends out the emails promoting this seminar isn’t paying a lot of attention, the concept is great. Journalists, with certain exceptions, absolutely suck at understanding law. This isn’t to say that they should have the depth of understanding that a practicing lawyer would have, or that they should stop focusing on salacious detail in favor of boring legalistic stuff. If it bleeds, it leads. We know you have papers to sell.
But the constant incorrect use of words, concepts you don’t understand, huge gaps in legal reasoning and flagrant misstatement of law isn’t just bad writing. It makes people stupider. It does harm. If this program is any good, it has the potential to teach journalists how to do less harm, how to make people less stupider.
It would likely be more effective if the presentations were made by people less inclined to blow smoke, more knowledgeable about law, more willing to tell journalists that they suck, but then this is Loyola Law School. Law schools don’t hurt people’s feelings.
But then, poorly written articles about the law don’t just hurt people’s feelings, but have the potential to do serious harm to readers. Does that matter? A story in the Daily Report about Mark Bennett’s recent argument before the Georgia Supreme Court provides a prime example.
Houston Lawyer to Georgia Supreme Court: Girls Aren’t Harmed When Treated as Sex Objects
An attorney challenging a state law against sexually exploiting children on the Internet told the Georgia Supreme Court that he doesn’t believe teenage girls are harmed by being treated as sex objects—and he attempted to enlist the lone woman justice to echo his point.
“Every woman in America has the experience of being a teenage girl and suddenly noticing that guys are looking at her differently,” Mark Bennett of Houston, Texas, told the court on Monday.
Was this said? Yes. Yes, it was. And yet it reflects such an utterly absurd misunderstanding of both the argument made, and the context in which it was made, as to suggest deliberate pandering to create outrage. And to add insult to injury, the article includes commentary by lawyers, including a former Supreme Court justice, based upon the writer’s “explanation” of the argument. Garbage in, garbage out.
Was this because the writer was venal, purposefully attempting to stoke flames of outrage by making her readers stupider? Possibly, but I don’t think so. The writer, Kathryn Turner, may have her own bias, but when she reached out to get a reaction, it wasn’t with any tone of malice or dismissal.
The sense is that she just didn’t grasp anything about the argument as to why the Georgia law was unconstitutional, or where this line, cherry picked from the middle, fit into the argument. She just didn’t “get it.” In an effort to blunt the article’s thrust, I offered a comment:
Having been present for the argument, this article reflects no understanding of either the primary arguments against the law, or the context of this responsive argument. The primary argument was that all speech is constitutionally protected unless it falls within a category designated by the Supreme Court as unprotected. The speech criminalized by this law did not, and so the law violated the First Amendment.
The argument referred to in this article was in response to the state‘s appeal to emotion about the terrible harm to a child by any speech that might be sexually arousing. The state sought to paint this as speech by child predators, but the point of the comment is that it includes speech by one child to another, and would criminalize common sexually arousing speech between younger people as well.
What this snippet of argument did was remind the court that some sexually arousing speech is common, ordinary and absolutely normal among teenagers, as we are all aware from our own experiences. And that we all survived it and grew up to be whatever we are today. There is nothing about this to justify the misrepresentation suggested by this article, or the quotes offered by people who didn‘t hear the argument and clearly don‘t understand the context.
Does this suffice? No. It will likely do little to alter the minds of any reader, as it’s just a comment as opposed to the main body of the article, and the credibility of those who were only too happy to be quoted in the article, despite having no clue what they were talking about beyond what the writer told them.
When I wrote about the argument, the most significant thing was that Justice David Nahmias demonstrated the level of constitutional and interpretative awareness necessary to immediately understand and appreciate a sophisticated argument. Without such smart judges, smart arguments die on the vine.
Without smart journalists, smart arguments get contorted into sources of outrage. Can a four day seminar at Loyola Law School make journalists smart enough to understand and appreciate the subject about which they write? Beats me. It’s not like I’m teaching them how to think about the law. But I sincerely hope it does good, makes journalists more knowledgeable, more competent to write about the law, because too many really suck at it. And we all suffer when stories make people stupider.