It is sometimes fun to pretend we can take our problems to James Madison, and say, “James, the president is calling the press the enemy of the people again,” or, “Jimmy, people are being sued for voicing their opinions.” We imagine him giving the same answer every time: “We gave you the First Amendment!”
The Colorado Legislature saw fit to bolster it this past session by passing two bills, “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation” (SLAPP) and “Media Literacy.” Now Gov. Jared Polis has signed both into law.
The first bill is aimed at curbing such SLAPP suits. Typically, a political advocate takes aim at, say, a corporation, accusing it of wrongdoing. The corporation then sues the critic, to silence her. The new law means the defendant can avail herself of an expedited court process to try to get the case dismissed on the grounds that it arose from exercising her First Amendment rights. In practice, it seems likely to benefit environmental advocates who criticize industry practices, but it ought to work the same way for anyone.
If this is balancing the scales, let us have more of it.
The second bill directs the state Department of Education to devise a curriculum to teach media literacy in public schools K-12, overseen by a committee of educators and media professionals. Students would learn the difference between truthful information and advertising or advocacy, said its sponsor, Rep. Lisa Cutter, a Democrat from Littleton.
“If we want people to make educated decisions, we have to first educate them on how to make educated decisions,” Cutter told Boulder Weekly. “Kids are exposed to news every minute of the day. ... It’s been harmful for our democracy and harmful for our dialogue because they double down on information that’s not even true.”
We take no issue with this. Yet Cutter probably would be equally correct if you substituted “adults” for “kids.”
It would be lovely if we could encourage adults to become more discerning news consumers; more rational, less partisan. Yet we suspect we err when we assume that is what they want to be. And in doing so, we underestimate the pull of circuses for a largely urbanized and alienated populace.
What is our ideal? That someday everyone will read The New Yorker online, or that they will eschew Alex Jones and Fox News en masse and tune in to PBS NewsHour?
They are already voting their preferences. We may call that ignorance or distractibility, but if it were something legislation could cure, it would have done that already.
True, we could try to institute mandatory adult education in media literacy. We could try to set up reeducation camps guided by committees of sociology professors from the University of California and editors from The New York Times and National Public Radio – which is precisely what a raft of conservatives suspect we already aim to do. They would be delighted to be proved correct, but we are not sure what else would be accomplished.
Back in the old schools, the new law, as we read it, says only that the new committee will hire a consultant to prepare a report to submit to the Legislature.
We do not think that this is the camel’s nose of Maoism in anyone’s tent, but we will be happy to reconsider when the Legislature gets that report.