Knight Foundation, Columbia University launch First Amendment Institute, $60 million project to promote free expression in the digital age

Project will support litigation, research and education on threats to freedom of speech and the press, and help shape First Amendment law in digital media

Columbia

NEW YORK – May 17, 2016 – The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Columbia University today announced the creation of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. The $60 million effort will seek to preserve and expand First Amendment rights in the digital age through research and education, and by supporting litigation in favor of protecting freedom of expression and the press.

News organizations have a long history of championing First Amendment rights, helping to shape and clarify laws on privacy, information access, libel and press freedom. In the past decade, however, economic pressures on traditional news companies have put a strain on their capacity to fight for these rights. Filling this critical void, the institute will be a primary, durable and influential advocate of free expression in the digital age.

“The First Amendment is not self-executing; only people can make it what it has become, through our attitudes, actions and, more pointedly, through the courts,” said Lee C. Bollinger, president of Columbia University. “In the past, news organizations pursued and won key court cases defining free expression. But such cases can be enormously expensive and many media – both established and new – are increasingly hard-pressed in the current economic environment to support First Amendment legal action. While the digital age has opened up new opportunities for accountability journalism, we need to fill the void and continue to champion free expression through litigation, research and education.”

A recent Knight Foundation poll of leading newsroom editors revealed that they believe the news industry is less able to pursue legal cases around free speech and freedom of the press issues than it was 10 years ago, with most also agreeing that First Amendment law has not kept pace with new digital-age demands.

“The basic freedoms we take for granted under the First Amendment are hardly settled,” said Alberto Ibargüen, president of Knight Foundation. “As the internet becomes even more integral to our lives, we face significant questions about the evolution of our rights. Threats to free speech are on the rise, and our hope is that the Institute will not just protect but help reinvigorate First Amendment principles for future generations.”

Knight Foundation and Columbia University will contribute $5 million each in operating funds and $25 million each in endowment funds to the institute, an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. It will be affiliated with Columbia, benefitting from the University’s top-tier law school, journalism school and other relevant academic fields. President Bollinger is a noted First Amendment scholar who has made freedom of expression and the future of journalism core priorities in Columbia’s academic and civic mission.

In recent years the university has, for example, launched Columbia Global Freedom of Expression to support and promote international legal norms protecting an independent free press, Columbia Global Reports to publish long-form journalism on under-reported global issues and, at the Graduate School of Journalism, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and the Brown Institute for Media Innovation in partnership with Stanford Engineering to develop and teach new methods of online and data-driven story-telling.

Over the past two decades, Knight Foundation has invested $18 million to help build the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. The total Knight Foundation investment in the Knight Institute at Columbia, $30 million, is the largest journalism grant in Knight’s history, and brings to more than $100 million the amount the foundation has invested in the principles outlined in the First Amendment, including support for the Newseum, Yale Law School, and organizations supporting free press rights both inside and outside of the United States.

The lnstitute launches amid emerging First Amendment concerns on such topics as: National Security Agency electronic surveillance of journalists and news sources; privacy rights on digital platforms; the overall freedom of internet platforms; use of digital technology in courtrooms and access to court records; free speech on college campuses; the lack of a strong constitutional shield for journalists reporting sensitive topics; a crackdown on government employees who talk with the media; and government delays and refusals in handling FOIA requests.

The main activities of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University will be in the areas of litigation, research and education. The institute will watch for court cases that offer an opportunity to define First Amendment law in the digital age, with a goal of achieving significant victories, and priority given to cases with digital components. Through its research, fellowships, publications, lectures and other events, the institute will seek to help the legal community, including the nation’s network of legal clinics, understand the principles underlying the First Amendment and how they apply to new technology.

“Digital journalism has created exciting, unprecedented opportunities for how we report and receive the news. Today’s reporters and news outlets have access to innovative platforms, fresh perspectives and a level of immediacy like never before. But it is also creating First Amendment challenges,” said Jennifer Preston, Knight Foundation’s vice president for Journalism. “Without sustained advocacy dedicated to defending uninhibited expression and a free press, we are at risk of experiencing a steady erosion of these bedrock freedoms. This is a precarious moment for the First Amendment, and with this Institute we hope to establish a primary, permanent, influential advocate of free expression.”