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BRC 319 -- Mass Media & the Law


Using Westlaw

Most of the books mentioned below, including the case law books, are now online via the Westlaw database.  Use this database to locate cases and encyclopedia articles from American Jurisprudence (a legal encyclopedia), as well as the United States Code (laws of the United States) and Mckinney’s (New York State laws).

Some tips to remember when using Westlaw:

  • In Westlaw, watch out for the flags next to a citation.  Generally, they indicate negative treatment or history of a case.  A yellow flag indicates “use with caution”.   Something about the case has not been resolved yet.  A case may be listed as “distinguished” from another case.  A red flag indicates that you should stop – do not use this case.  The case may have been overruled, reversed, or superseded by another case.  Click on the flags to see what the negative treatment was. 
  • The new version of Westlaw, WestlawNext, will pause your session if you leave it temporarily and return.  The old version of Westlaw, Westlaw Campus, which is still accessible,  will log you off after approximately 30 minutes of inactivity, and you won’t know it.  If you’re engrossed in reading something, and attempt to return to the search results list, if you’ve been “inactive” for too long, you will not be able to return to the list.  Instead, Westlaw will take you to a Westlaw login screen, and ask for your Westlaw account number, which we do not have.  You’ll need to back all the way out, and enter the database at the beginning point.
  • The Popular Name Table (to locate acts of Congress) is also available through Westlaw.   This is especially helpful for locating the text of an Act (a law) when you know the popular name for a law (“Patriot Act,” “No Child Left Behind Act”), but do not know the law’s official name.  To find it in WestlawNext, do the following:
    • Click on the Federal Materials tab
    • Click on the link for United States Code Annotated (USCA)
    • On the right hand-hand side, you will see the link for the USCA Popular Name Table
  • Remember: in either Westlaw, you must indicate where you want the database to search.  Do you want to search for cases?  If so, do you want federal or state court cases?  Statutes?  If so, do you want federal or state laws?  Regulatory codes?  If so, do you want federal or state regulations?
  • To search in law reviews and journals, click on the Secondary Sources link.  To search in all law reviews and journals, click the link for Law Reviews & Journals, then enter your search terms in the search box at the top of the page.

  Law Books

After finding some terms and clues using reference books, look in the various law books for case law. You may wish to begin with one of the law encyclopedias such as American Jurisprudence (available via the Westlaw database under Secondary Sources).  Remember, American Jurisprudence is a secondary source, not a primary source. Legal encyclopedias will provide some background information on legal topics, define terms, and  point you in the direction of some case law (court cases) and statutory law (e.g.: the U.S. Code, state laws, etc.) Black’s Law Dictionary is also in Westlaw under Secondary Sources.

You may also wish to look at the specific laws, such as those for New York State, found in Mckinney’s (available online via Westlaw) or the laws of the United States found in the United States Code (available via the Westlaw database). 

There are two other sets of books you may want to use, too:  West’s New York Digest  (for court cases in New York State) and West’s Federal Practice Digest  (for federal court cases).   These are available online via Westlaw.   These sets explain points made in the case law using the West key numbering system.  The “Key Numbers” denote points of law (with brief descriptions) within a case, and may be used to find more recent cases on the topic.  Look for the “Key Numbers” within a case.

Finally, there are the case law books, both New York and Federal.  Use one of the legal abbreviation books listed at the beginning of this guide (Dictionary of Legal Abbreviations, Current American Legal Citations) to help decipher these abbreviations, or go to the Cardiff University website at


  • Sometimes Google may also be helpful in locating court cases, party names and citations.
  • You might want to try Google Scholar ( to locate case law.  Click the radio button under the search box to search for case law.
  • For an excellent guide to the U.S. legal system, log on to:
  • U.S. Courts: The Federal Judiciary


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