The Internet: Is This a Thing Any More?

One of my two courses this semester is the unfortunately-named “Law of Internet Speech.”  I say it’s unfortunately named because, although I think it’s an important and timely course that should attract a lot of students, and I took the name directly from the Madeleine Schachter and Joel Kurtzberg casebook, I only have seven students.   (My other course, a seminar on Law and Social Issues in Cyberspace, drew eleven students.)  So I wonder: is there something about the name that makes it look unattractive to students (besides the fact that it’s not a bar course)?

From Flickr, by eflon

So perhaps my younger readers can tell me: is “the Internet” even a thing any more? Does it make sense to speak of “the Internet” as something with an identifiable shape and presence? Or is it now simply the transparent and invisible infrastructure on which so much human activity now takes place.  When a student Googles a research topic or a restaurant menu, texts a friend to go to dinner, posts photos of the meal on Flickr, and then posts on his or her Facebook wall about how wasted he or she got after dinner, does that student think of all those things as “using the Internet”?  Or are they (in one sense) discrete activities with their own sphere of reference, or (in another sense) just part of what you do in your daily life, like brushing your teeth?

I also wonder: what is the purpose of a course on online speech and privacy (which is really the scope of “Law of Internet Speech”) when there is a general First Amendment course on the schedule?  One of the points I want to make in this course is that all speech is Internet speech now.  Even the traditional subjects of free speech law–newspapers and other mass media–exist primarily online, and there is some doubt whether print newspapers will survive in anything like their traditional form.  And public speech or assembly?  In a world of ubiquitous digital video, they derive most of their impact–and are often stage-directed toward–online distribution and publicity.

So as I continue to shape this course, perhaps it’s best to think of it as a course on the shape of freedom of speech (and of the press) in a world of ubiquitous and instantaneous digital communication.

(ADDENDUM: Lest anyone think I’m not pulling my weight, next year I’ll be teaching a required course in legal ethics.)

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About James G. Milles

Professor of Law, SUNY Buffalo Law School

Posted on February 1, 2010, in First Amendment, free speech, Law school, Privacy. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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