When you start looking at the world through the eyes of a public legal educator, you start to see misinformation and misunderstanding everywhere. Sometimes you’re out running a PLE program and a participant starts talking about a legal issue where they have the basic facts of the law completely wrong. Sometimes you’re browsing your Facebook feed when a friend from your town posts an article with legal advice that only applies to people in Alabama. It’s tricky; you want to encourage people to engage with the law, but you also feel a responsibility not to let misunderstandings spread.
So what’s a PLE advocate to do?
Well, first of all, you should think about the good things that are happening: you have someone who’s interested in law, who probably feels strongly about it, and who wants to help educate or spread the word to other people in their life. Those are impulses you don’t want to snuff out!
For most people, law is an inaccessible and confusing world. Even though it’s fundamental to understanding our society, most people don’t ever get much good PLE. The vast majority of us are stuck cobbling together an understanding of the law from odds and ends news reports, TV series (most of them American or maybe British), and the experiences of friends. Of course there are misunderstandings about law! Who could possibly put together a nuanced and accurate picture, from those piecemeal sources?
Remember that as a member of the justice sector or legal education field, your voice carries a lot of weight and social prestige when you speak about these issues. Law is viewed as an elite field, and most people find legal experts kind of intimidating. It’s easy to make people feel shut down without really meaning to.
So tread lightly when you correct them – but do, absolutely, correct them. Here is my highly recommended, tried-and-true formula for handling misinformed comments in a responsible way:
- Begin by saying something that will make sure the person doesn’t feel stupid or embarrassed.
- Don’t focus on where they’re wrong, but instead offer a short, accurate summary of the topic.
- Use plain language – avoid legal jargon or if you need to use it, at least explain your terms. This ensures people don’t feel steamrolled or like you’re “pulling rank” on them.
- Close with something that moves the conversation forward, rather than shutting it down. You could tell them something you find interesting about the topic, or an interesting policy or social science-based reason why the law is the way it is, or tell them about a related resource or article they should check out, or maybe even some public advocacy or organizing going on around the issue.
Put it all together, and what have you got? Let’s look at an example.
Imagine you’re doing a PLE session about criminal law in a high school classroom, discussing what happens when someone gets arrested, and a student puts up their hand and says, “Yeah but they also have to read you your Miranda rights. You have the right to remain silent…,” and a bunch of students begin reciting together, “Anything you say or do can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney…”
But you know the Miranda process is an American thing. Here are some ways you could respond, based on the formula above:
- “Wow, you guys know most of the Miranda warning! That’s awesome. It’s on TV all the time, right? We actually don’t use the Miranda warning in Canada. Police don’t have to say that to you here. If you’re under arrest in Canada, police officers have to tell you 2 things: they have to tell you why you’re being arrested, and that you can call a lawyer for legal advice (and that includes calling “duty counsel,” which is a lawyer who’s paid by the government to give you advice for free). Then they have to let you call a lawyer, if you want, and if you’re under 18 they have to call your parents. It’s funny, we have so many American TV programs and so much American news, sometimes it’s really hard to know whether things you see or hear about actually apply to you.”
- “Yes! The Miranda rights. Thank you for bringing that up! A lot of people think that police have to recite all those lines at you when you’re being arrested. But in Canada, they actually don’t. If you’re getting arrested in Ontario, all the police need to tell you is why you’re being arrested and that you have the right to talk to a lawyer. If you don’t have a lawyer, they have to give you a call with “duty counsel.” Does anybody know what duty counsel is?” [wait for responses, then talk a little bit about the different ways people can access free legal advice in Ontario]
Once you figure out how to adapt this formula to your own voice, you’ll find you use it again and again for turning wrong-headed discussions into productive ones. Use it in good health, and good PLE!
By Michelle Thompson, Post-Secondary Outreach