Legal Literacy within Technical Communication

Have you ever bought something from the store that came with directions? And when you got home you immediately threw those directions in the garbage after opening the product?

Say, for instance, you bought a simple and cheap coffee maker to use at your home. Well, you think you are already well-versed in the knowledge of making coffee, and typical coffee machines only have one switch, you think are well-versed enough to handle this coffee pot without the directions. With all this being said though, you still manage to burn yourself on the coffee pot, and then you get upset because you think that the product should have told you in advance that it would burn you if you touched it. This is when those directions that you threw in the garbage come into play. In those directions, there is more than likely a warning telling you that the coffee pot will be hot when in use, therefore notifying you in advance about the potential hazards.

This is where the legal literacy of technical communicators comes into play. In the article “Legal Literacy: Coproducing the Law in Technical Communication,” by Mark A. Hannah, he argues it is important for technical communicators to consider and recognize the legal implications of their work. A technical communicator has to take into account all of the possible ways that a user may potentially use the product, including burning themselves on a hot coffee pot. This also means looking at information that is written on safety labels, warnings, intellectual property, and product instructions, along with the ethical implications that go into place when writing these types of documents. 

This awareness can and should be applied to every technical communicator’s strategy. Hannah details why technical communicators should be considered “co-producers of the law,” this is because technical communicators write the laws, product warnings, road signs, and everything around us. Being a part of the technical communication industry means having an ethical responsibility to your audience about the information you are providing. The article exhibits quite a few great examples to express the author’s reasoning behind implementing legal literacy into the technical communication curriculum for current students. One example being within the field of liability law. A company did not advise users that they needed to cover their airways when using an at-home bug pest spray, as the product may be harmful to breathe in. As a result, the company was presenting a hazard to the users by not warning them of the potential dangers of the product. 

This may seem like a simple error, but it has important legal implications for companies. If a user proceeds to use the company’s product and is harmed from the toxic fumes, the company may be held liable based upon the directions and information provided to users on the packaging that most just throw away.

I think that legal literacy is extremely important, and as technical communicators are needed in every industry across every field, it is important to understand the information that is being put out into the world. We as technical communicators have a legal and moral responsibility to ensure the information of what we are writing is ethical and honest so that the potential hazards against users is minimized. Therefore, I would definitely recommend adding legal literacy to Technical Communication majors so that the importance and awareness of this information is understood. 


Legal Literacy: Coproducing the Law in Technical Communication, by Mark A. Hannah

Viewpoint Written by Rachel Spradling, Texas State University

Edited by Erica Lies, Texas State University

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