NEW YORK, N.Y. – The First Amendment is getting a new champion, with some deep pockets.
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Columbia University on Tuesday announced the launch of a $60 million project, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which would use litigation as well as research and education to fight for freedom of expression in an ever-evolving digital era.
The last half of the 20th century saw court cases that really defined and pushed the First Amendment forward, said Alberto Ibarguen, president of Knight Foundation. But it’s not the same environment, with the technology and tools of information gathering and dissemination changing rapidly, and there not being nearly the same number of newspaper outlets with the resources to take on the fights.
That’s where the institute can make a difference, Ibarguen said.
“So much is changing so fast that more voices, a bigger family of voices speaking in favour of free speech and free expression … is more likely to lead to a more open societal attitude toward free speech,” he said.
The amendment bars the government from establishing an official religion and enshrines Americans’ rights to freedom to practice religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom to assemble peaceably.
The institute, which has started its search for an executive director, will conduct research and scholarship on First Amendment issues, and develop a long-term view of how freedom of expression should be protected, said Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia. It would take on and support court cases that connected to that strategy.
Bollinger said the institute would be able to make use of a Columbia-wide commitment, with access to the university’s law school and journalism schools and other departments. The Knight Foundation and Columbia are each putting $5 million toward the institute’s operating budget for the first five years, and $25 million each toward its endowment.
The focus would be on how freedom of expression is defined in a digital age filled with advances in technology that judges who decided cases decades ago couldn’t have seen coming, said Eric Newton, a consultant who was formerly a longtime journalism program leader at Knight and worked on the institute project.
“A citizen who can carry a cellphone, which is a printing press and a broadcast studio, in his or her pocket has legal standing that courts have yet to sort out,” he said, pointing out that whether that citizen has journalist protections currently varies from state to state.
“If everything gets re-litigated in a digital frame, that means that the First Amendment as we come to know it could change, and it could change dramatically,” he said. “It’s only the way it is because of some court cases that happened decades ago.”