Last month, Media Literacy Now (MLN) joined allies in an amici curiae (friends of the court) brief in support of an appeal in the Cook v. Raimondo Rhode Island case arguing for education that better prepares students for participation in democracy.

The landmark case argues that media literacy education is essential in facilitating citizens’ full participation in democracy and is therefore a constitutional right.

“In our democracy, it is the right and the responsibility of citizens to participate in the decisions that our government makes; therefore people need to be well informed,” MLN President and founder Erin McNeill said. “It is clear that media literacy education is essential to discern good information from bad in an age when we are overwhelmed by information and sophisticated campaigns vie for our attention.”

This case is not the first time Rhode Island has been called to implement media literacy education into its school systems. In 2017, Media Literacy Now supported a group of advocates in passing legislation that required education officials to prioritize media literacy education. Education officials have not fulfilled the requirements of that law, failing to respond to MLN-Rhode Island’s recommendations.

“One of our key recommendations to the Rhode Island Department of Education was to ensure that all administrators understand media literacy core concepts and their relation to current events,” Pamela Steager, MLN-Rhode Island chapter leader, said.

Now in Cook v. Raimondo, 14 students ranging from preschool to high school age (or parents on their behalf) filed a class-action lawsuit against the state of Rhode Island, arguing that it does not provide students with sufficient education and civic-participation skills. Through the amici curiae, MLN demonstrates its support for the demand of the students of Rhode Island for an education that is adequate to prepare them for citizenship in the 21st century.

The group claimed state officials (namely governor Gina Raimondo) were violating the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause by “denying [students] a meaningful opportunity to obtain a basic education necessary to prepare them to be capable voters and jurors, to exercise effectively their right of free speech and other constitutional rights, to participate effectively and intelligently in our open political system and to function productively as civic participants.”

In October 2020, Rhode Island District Court Judge William Smith reluctantly dismissed the case, claiming he could not enforce education as a Constitutional right. Even so, Smith’s opinion bolsters the plaintiffs’ pleas.

“Plaintiffs should be commended for bringing this case,” he wrote. “It highlights a deep flaw in our national education priorities and policies. The Court cannot provide the remedy Plaintiffs seek, but in denying that relief, the Court adds its voice to Plaintiffs’ in calling attention to their plea. Hopefully, others who have the power to address this need will respond appropriately.”

On January 25, the plaintiffs filed their appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which the amici curiae brief accompanied. In the brief, MLN, the National Association for Media Education and the Media Education Lab highlight the importance of media literacy education in preparing students to exercise their rights to participate in democracy. MLN and its allies argue that the right to sufficient civic education is, indeed, a constitutional right because it is necessary to participate fully in democracy.

The groups also outline the dire effects of a lack of media literacy skills and how an affinity for disinformation ultimately harms democracy, as seen in the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

“Without teaching children how to assess and use the torrents of information that surround them, our citizens are, and will continue to be, unprepared to meet the civic duties owed to our republic, which will then seal its fate as a democracy in decline,” the brief reads.

The groups present research arguing that media literacy is paramount in guaranteeing the constitutional right to citizenship and that media literacy serves as a key part of the solution to a democracy in decline, helping protect the constitutional right to participate in our democracy.

Research shows that children are highly susceptible to fake news and disinformation, but that an increase in media literacy leads to an increase in civic engagement.

“The work of MLN-Rhode Island set the stage for plaintiffs to argue that the state has acknowledged the need for media literacy education and has so far declined to act,” McNeill said. “We hope to see this case move forward and to set a precedent for others around the country to demand an adequate education that includes media literacy skills.”

To learn more, see The Center for Educational Equity informational page on Cook v Raimondo.

View the full amici curiae brief below.



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