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Champions of free speech launch $60-million First Amendment Institute

The First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, is a $60-million initiative that seeks to advance First Amendment rights through research, education, and litigation.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/File
Students walk through campus at Columbia University in Morningside Heights in Upper Manhattan. Columbia University has partnered with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to establish the First Amendment Institute.

The enormous changes that advancing technology have thrust upon the news media is probably one of the biggest stories of the digital era. But what may have gone less noticed is the impact that those changes have had on the ability of news organizations to champion First Amendment rights. As a recent Knight Foundation poll of leading newsroom editors revealed, with fewer resources at their disposal, today's editors are less likely to go to court to fight battles over freedom of access.

The First Amendment is, however, getting a new champion: The First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, a $60-million initiative, that seeks to advance First Amendment rights through research, education, and litigation.

In recent years there has been growing concern that the First Amendment is losing its main champion, a news industry that is today often crippled by financial challenges. The industry now lacks resources that it enjoyed before the Internet era. Yet, at the same time, thorny new First Amendments issues – created in an era of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden revelations – are constantly being raised. These involve questions that judges couldn't possibly have foreseen in First Amendment rulings involving cases such as the Pentagon Papers.

Among other issues, today's courts must grapple with questions about what constitutes a news organization. "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," Eric Newton, a consultant and former journalism program leader at Knight who worked on the institute project, told the Associated Press.

"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."

The initiative is a joint effort between the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Columbia University. The Knight Foundation and Columbia University will each contribute $5 million in operating funds and $25 million in endowment funds to the institute, which will be a nonprofit organization. Columbia University President Lee Bollinger said he hopes to double the institute's $60-million endowment over the next five to 10 years, and create a sustainable organization with a $5-million annual budget.

The institute will be housed at Columbia University, and has started searching for an executive director. It will conduct research and scholarship on First Amendment issues and develop a long-term view of how freedom of expression should be protected, helping shape the interpretation of "privacy, information access, libel and press freedom" laws.

Digital journalism has created exciting, unprecedented opportunities for how we report and receive the news,” said Jennifer Preston, Knight Foundation’s vice president for journalism, in a press release. “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.”

“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," Ms. Preston added. "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.”

This report contains material form the Associate Press.

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