Communication Studies (CMNS) 311

Mass Media and the Law (Revision 3)

CMNS 311 Course cover

Revision 3 is closed for registrations, replaced by current version.

Delivery Mode: Individualized study online
Video component.*
*Overseas students, please contact the University Library before registering in a course that has an audio/visual component.

Credits: 3

Area of Study: Applied Studies

Prerequisite: None

Faculty: Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences

Communication Studies home page

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Questions about this course? Contact the course professor: Dale Dewhurst.

CMNS 311 has a Challenge for Credit option.

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This course introduces communication and media professionals to the legal context within which they work. The course uses case studies to illustrate how such issues as freedom of expression, defamation, contempt of court, copyright, access to information, breach of privacy, and confidentiality affect the working life of the media professional.

Course Objectives

The goal of this course is to assist you in identifying when a legal issue may arise and therefore avoid a legal dispute entirely. Alternatively, you may on occasion want a legal issue to turn into a dispute so that you can go to court to make a point or establish a principle. In either case, early identification of issues will enable you and/or your employer to seek legal advice without delay and be able to decide on the best course of action. The course is part survey and part application. We will introduce you to legal principles and then ask you to apply these principles to a set of facts—either by studying a case or by thinking about a hypothetical situation.

This course assumes no prior knowledge of the law. However, students who are media or communications professionals may well have sought legal advice in the past during the preparation or production of a story. Media law affects the way information can be obtained and presented in many different ways. The purpose of this course is not to provide you with the answers you need to decide what the law is with regard to any issue you might deal with in your work. Rather, it is to provide you with enough understanding of the law to enable you to:

  • Know when to ask for legal advice
  • Understand the types of issues a lawyer will need to resolve, and
  • Understand what might be the possible outcome, and why.

This course is designed to introduce communications and media professionals to the legal context within which you operate in Canada (excluding Quebec, which has a different legal system). Law permeates all aspects of our lives. Understanding basic legal principles and how those principles have been applied to various factual situations will help you to identify the legal issues that may arise in your career.

This course is not designed to train you as a lawyer. However, we hope that, by learning about some specific legal topics, you will be able to identify when a legal issue arises, and to govern yourself appropriately.


Part I: Fundamental Principles of Canadian Law

  • Unit 1: Basic Principles of Law
  • Unit 2: The Shape of Government and the Law in Canada
  • Unit 3: Freedom of Expression and Freedom of the Press

Part II: Legal Issues Before the Fact

  • Unit 4: Access to Information
  • Unit 5: Privacy Law
  • Unit 6: Confidentiality of Sources
  • Unit 7: Access to Court Information

Part III: Legal Issues After the Fact

  • Unit 8: Contempt of Court
  • Unit 9: Copyright Law
  • Unit 10: Defamation
  • Unit 11: Review and Conclusion


To receive credit for CMNS 311, you must complete the assignments, submit four sets of journal entries, receive at least 50 percent on the final examination, and achieve a minimum composite course grade of at least “D” (50 percent). The chart below summarizes the course activities and the credit weight associated with each one.

Unit 3 journal study questions 10%
Assignment 1 10%
Unit 6 journal study questions 10%
Unit 9 journal study questions 10%
Assignment 2 10%
Unit 11 journal study questions 10%
Final Examination 40%
Total 100%

The final examination for this course must be taken online with an AU-approved exam invigilator at an approved invigilation centre. It is your responsibility to ensure your chosen invigilation centre can accommodate online exams. For a list of invigilators who can accommodate online exams, visit the Exam Invigilation Network.

To learn more about assignments and examinations, please refer to Athabasca University's online Calendar.

Note: The final examination for this course must be taken online at an invigilated location. It is your responsibility to ensure a computer with an Internet connection and Internet Explorer 5.0 or higher is available for your use at the invigilation centre.

Course Materials


Michael G. Crawford, 2008. The Journalist's Legal Guide. 5th ed. Toronto: Carswell.

Other materials


Dreamworlds 2: Desire, Sex and Power in Music Video. Written, edited and narrated by Sut Jhally. Media Education Foundation, Northampton, VA, n.d.

The course materials also include a study guide, a student manual, and a reading file.

The course materials for this course are shipped as a shrink-wrapped package. If the shrink wrap is broken, the materials are not returnable.

Special Course Features

Some readings in these course materials are drawn from the Canadian Periodical Index (CPIQ), a journal database on Athabasca University's Library site. Contact the Library if you need assistance in accessing these readings.

Students registered in this course may take part in computer conferencing.

Challenge for Credit Course Overview

The Challenge for Credit process allows students to demonstrate that they have acquired a command of the general subject matter, knowledge, intellectual and/or other skills that would normally be found in a university level course.

Full information for the Challenge for Credit can be found in the Undergraduate Calendar.

Challenge Evaluation

To receive credit for the CMNS 311 challenge registration, you must achieve a grade of at least “D” (50 percent) on the examination.

Undergraduate Challenge for Credit Course Registration Form

Athabasca University reserves the right to amend course outlines occasionally and without notice. Courses offered by other delivery methods may vary from their individualized-study counterparts.

Opened in Revision 3, January 24, 2008.

View previous syllabus