Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Law's Mixed Messages

The Department of Homeland Security has been running an ad campaign around the catch phrase "If you see something, say something."  While not "law" in a strict sense, the campaigns promotes an official governmental policy encouraging people to come forward when something suspicious is observed.

Recently a patron of a bank in Glastonbury, Connecticut spotted a man carrying a gun.  He notified bank employees. The gun toter turned out to have a valid carry permit.  So, the police charged the customer who spoke up with breach of peace for upsetting the bank employees.

Apparently, the new policy message is, "If you see something, keep your mouth shut or answer for it in court."

UPDATE 9/26/13: The Hartford Courant reports that the state has declined to prosecute the charges.  This article also gives more details about what happened that justify the actions of the police:
Mr. Gursky apparently wrote a note "man with a gun" and attempted to show it to a teller while saying "gun." He apparently then left the bank taking the note with him even though the teller had not yet seen it.  He did not wait around to make any explanation to any other bank personnel or the police officers who were on the way as a result of the teller's call.

To me, these facts sharpen the analysis on the way law works.  If the law works by sending messages, then the way those messages are presented to the public is an important element of "the legal system." In essence, that makes the media part of the legal system.  If the media chooses to under-report facts in an effort to make a story sound more exciting or interesting to read, then the message that gets sent is different than the one that would have been received if all the facts were reported.  In this case, as first reported (see the video below), the law enforcement action seems ridiculous. Then bloggers, like me, pick up the story, repeat it as it as been reported, and pretty soon the internet is abuzz with a story about how inconsistent and ridiculous the law appears. With more people getting their news on line or from twitter, there is even more incentive for media to make stories shorter and more intriguing to draw readers. If shorter and more intriguing means "incorrect" and "misleading," then that exacerbates a problem of eroding legal legitimacy.

If the law's legitimacy depends on the respect of the people, and that respect can be manipulated by the way the law is reported by the media, then isn't some portion of media studies a legitimate part of legal studies. Perhaps we should be teaching "The Legal and Ethical and Public Environment of Business;" including media studies, interest group politics, legislative law-making and public perception.  The new AACSB standards require that business students have an understanding of the political environment of business as well as the regulatory.  Who is teaching that?

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