Columbia University creates First Amendment Institute

With growing concern over the weakening of First Amendment rights, Columbia University and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced the creation of an institute to “preserve and expand First Amendment rights in the digital age.”

The  Knight First Amendment Institute will offer support to lawyers dealing with new technology as well as educating Americans about the First Amendment, First Amendment education, and conducting research.


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

The Knight Foundation in April released the results of a survey of newsroom leaders. Most of the respondents said they believed the news industry is less able to take on First Amendment court cases than it was 10 years ago, mainly for economic reasons. The Knight Foundation gave the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press $200,000 for the committee to help support journalists in need of legal assistance.

The Foundation’s investment in the Institute is the largest journalism grant the Knight Foundation has awarded in its history.

“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,” Jennifer Preston, the foundation’s vice president for journalism, said in a statement.

Note that no mention is made of taking on the campus bullies or biased university administrators who seek to stifle conservative viewpoints at every turn.  But if conservatives sued a school for such bias, would that not be part of the mission statement of the institute?

It would, but we shouldn't be surprised if they ignore the problem.  While it's valuable to have a powerful advocate for the First Amendment as far as digital media is concerned, the real, pressing problem occurs on campus.  There simply is no place in America where freedom of speech is more under duress than institutes of higher education.

Unless the institute wants to change the definition of "free speech," by all rights, it should lend a hand to conservative student organizations and conservative advocacy groups fighting for the right to be heard.  But a First Amendment organization sponsored by a prominent university is not likely to engage in the battles for free speech on campus.

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