“The law” is actually a collection of rules and principles from various sources. The courts play a major role in the development of the law, particularly in interpreting constitutional and statutory law and determining the constitutionality of statutes and administrative rules.
A major focus of media law is the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and equivalent state constitutional provisions. Under the principle of judicial review, the courts have the power to declare statutes and regulations invalid because they violate the provisions of these constitutional provisions.
The most authoritative court in the United States is the U.S. Supreme Court. Each state also has their own supreme court which is the ultimate authority on state law issues. Beneath these courts are a network of federal and state trial and appeals courts, all of which have rules of procedure and for acceptance of evidence. There are some major differences between civil and criminal cases because of the constitutional rights of criminal defendants.
A major issue for the media is whether the law recognizes a “reporter’s privilege” that protects journalists from being forced to reveal the identity of sources who have been promised confidentiality or to disclose unpublished materials. This principle has also been applied in some cases to identification of anonymous online posters and commenters.
Because trials absorb considerable time and resources, more judges and attorneys are using alternative ways of resolving disputes. For criminal cases, the answer to the ever-growing backlog is plea bargaining. But efforts to create a system for resolution of complaints against the media other than the courts were not successful.
The various sources of law are readily accessible, but it is important that researchers understand how the various sources relate to each other, and examine these connections in order to get a full understanding of what the law is.