Columbia University To Open A First Amendment War Room: $60 Million ‘First Amendment Institute’ To Promote Free Expression

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Columbia University announced on Tuesday that they would create a $60 million free expression “war room” at the university’s campus in Manhattan.

The project, named the Knight First Amendment Institute, will seek to preserve and expand the rights of freedom of speech and the press outlined in the First Amendment in the digital age. The Knight Foundation is an American non-profit dedicated to promoting quality in journalism. Columbia and the Knight Foundation have stated they will split the costs evenly, making the $30 million invested the largest journalism grant in Knight’s history.

According to a statement published on the foundation’s official website, the Institute would seek to take on legal battles around free speech and freedom of the press issues that news organizations historically took up but now might find too costly to pursue. Lee C. Bollinger, Columbia University’s president and a First Amendment scholar, says in the official statement that the new institute hopes to influence legal debates over First Amendment issues that have been hotly debated in an age globally connected by the internet and social media.

“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. 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.”

News organizations historically fought in legal cases regarding issues of privacy, libel, information access, and press freedom, but in the past decade economic pressures have undermined news companies’ ability to fight for these rights. It is hoped that the Institute will fill the critical void left behind by supporting litigation and promoting research and education towards protecting First Amendment rights, as well as help shape how the First Amendment is applied to digital law, according to the New York Times.

“Among the issues of concern: online privacy rights, free expression on college campuses and whistle-blower protections, an issue that has gained urgency with the prolific filing of criminal charges by the Obama administration.”

A recent poll of top newsroom editors by the Knight Foundation found that 65 percent believed news organizations were less able to champion free speech rights than 10 years ago, and 53 percent of editors said news organizations were no longer prepared to go to court over First Amendment cases. The poll included the leading editors of major print and online publications. Most also agreed that First Amendment law had not kept up with new challenges of the digital age.

“The basic freedoms we take for granted under the First Amendment are hardly settled,” Alberto Ibargüen, president of the Knight Foundation, said in the official statement. “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.”

Columbia University and the Knight Foundation will contribute $5 million each, along with $25 million each in endowment funds to the new institute, which will be a new independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization affiliated with Columbia. It will benefit from the university’s robust school of journalism and its top-tier law school.

Currently, there is no set timeline for the institute’s opening, though a search for an executive director is ongoing, and it is expected to take shape in the coming year.

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