A Conversation with Communication Law Professor T. Barton Carter

Mr. T. Barton Carter is a professor at Boston University’s School of Law and College of Communication. He is a practicing attorney specializing in communication law and new communication technologies. Having been involved with BU for decades, he also happens to be the first student at the school to be awarded a Master of Science in mass communication in 1978.

You were the first student to graduate with a master’s degree in mass communication degree. As someone who belonged to the first graduate class, what was it like being a student then?

TBC: Well, it was very different in part because the curriculum was very fluid at that point. Pretty much in the beginning it was almost whatever the chairman thought you should be taking. I guess that was partially because they hadn’t even had it fully approved yet. 

The course you are taking [CM713 Law of Communication] was actually my professional project.

Oh really? Tell me more about it.

TBC: I designed the course for my final requirement. Instead of taking a comprehensive or a thesis, they had something called as a professional project–so my project was to design a graduate law class ’cause they didn’t have one at the time.

How much of the course is still the same right now?

TBC: In structure, it is still very similar. In terms of content, we’re talking … boy! 40 years of change in the law.

So, the answer is…maybe 30 or 40 percent, at most? Because of all the things that have happened since then. You know, if you think about some of the stuff that we’ve been studying, look at the dates on most of it…The Copyright Act of 1976 actually took effect January 1978, which was when my degree was awarded. [A] number of those defamation cases came later on. Commercial speech didn’t have first-amendment protection.

A lot of things have happened since then.

TBC: Back then, the biggest issue with electronic was broadcasting. Cable was just starting up, and the big laws regarding cable came in 1984. Needless to say, internet and all that didn’t exist. So to say it’s changed is an understatement.

Apart from the obvious changes in the field of COM law…

TBC: And the field of communication.

Well, there was a course called computers in communication, and it was taught using terminals connected to the main frame for handing in punch cards. It was wind by line constructions, and there was nothing resembling a graphic interface. You literally would type in things.

For word processing, first you would type in the text and put commands in that would tell it to start a new paragraph, etcetera–and then you run it through a formatting program, which would then print it out. Hopefully the way you wanted it to look.

What about the students? Can you compare them in a then vs. now kind of a situation?

TBC: I think overall the quality of the student body is much better. That’s just a function of how the university has grown, the quality of students we take in, etcetera. Honestly, in terms of the work we are doing day to day, how do you compare? We had some excellent students back then. I am just saying that probably as a whole the quality has risen.

The student body has gotten more international. There is no question about that. Much higher percentage of international students.

Did you still have international students then?

TBC: We had a few. We had some, but nothing close to what we have now. Anyway, everything was different.

Since you have taught COM Law for a while now, what would you say is the biggest challenge of teaching this course?

TBC: First of all, international students – why would they know our legal system? So, it is obviously a big challenge. One of the things that always shocked me was how little the U.S. students know about our legal system or how it operates. So essentially, the first challenge is teaching how the law works, getting them to think in a legal-analysis fashion. You know, analyzing things, having to back them up and not assert or [say] “I feel” because the law doesn’t work that way. So that’s the first, biggest thing.

Right.

TBC: I mean obviously one of the bigger challenges over here with the students is also just language. It’s tough enough that English is your second language. All of a sudden, I am talking in a third language, and I recognize that as a challenge. I try to use as little jargon as possible, and I try to make sure I explain the terms–but that is something still a lot of people struggle with.

I guess the challenge is to simplify it without distorting it, and that’s a fairly fine line. If you generalize too much, then it just creates misunderstandings–whereas, what I have to do is figure how to simplify it without losing it, and it’s a challenge. There is no question about it.

Has it been more challenging since your class has more international students now?

TBC: Yes and no. I mean, I think in some cases the quality of students has increased, which reduces the challenges somewhat. The international students–yes, it’s a bigger challenge for them, but I have also discovered the last couple of years, the international students end up doing as well as the U.S. students.

That’s nice to know.

TBC: Sometimes the highest grade in an exam is an international student. In fact, I think for the last several years it has been, which I think says something. Also, I think that the U.S. students sort of assume that they understand stuff, and, in a way, foreign students know they don’t know it–so they work harder at understanding it.

Plus, there’s also the cultural issue for international students. Let’s face it, for some of them, the first amendment is truly a foreign concept. “What do you mean the government can’t tell you to shut up?” (laughs) To them, it is just, like, “What?” So, that is another difficulty, although I have been pleasantly surprised by how well international students handle it.

That is true. Which role has been your favorite here at BU?

TBC: Teaching.

Teaching here or at law school?

TBC: They’re both different, and I enjoy them both. In fact, that is why I did both for many years. It’s ’cause they were different. They were different challenges. I explored some ideas more deeply over there, but there was a fresh perspective over here. So I wouldn’t say I enjoyed one more than the other. They were both enjoyable.

 

Prachi Kabir, Staff Writer

Prachi is a Communication Studies graduate student from India who believes good research is more exhilarating than a good read. Needless to say, she is an avid reader, wannabe wine aficionado, professional daydreamer and hopeful to make a career in PR. Apart from reading, she loves sleeping and eating in no particular order.

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