Free Expression Is Central to a Healthy Democracy. That’s Why We’re Taking Part in Free Speech Week

For Free Speech Week 2021 (Oct. 18-24), Knight Foundation joins the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Society of Professional Journalists, Radio Television Digital News Association and other participating partners to highlight the important role free speech and press rights play in today’s society. As a foundation with strong roots in local journalism, these fundamental rights underpin Knight’s mission to foster informed and engaged communities for a healthy democracy. And after the events of 2020, our First Amendment rights to free expression seem more critical than ever. 

In the 21st Century, we face new challenges regarding speech in an inclusive society. Our 17-year portfolio of public opinion research exploring student views on free speech and expression illustrates how an emerging generation understands these rights during an era of changing speech, communication and interaction, and how it believes these rights should be put into practice. Around the time most high schoolers got on social media, a gap emerged between male and female students, and widened between white students and those of color, on views towards the First Amendment that has steadily deepened ever since. Our 2020 Knight-Gallup college student survey showed that Black college students are much less likely to believe the First Amendment protects them. And since 2016, college students have become increasingly concerned that our free speech and press rights are no longer secure. Many educators are left wondering how to promote both free expression and inclusion on campus.   

At Knight, we believe in freedom of expression and in the values expressed in the First Amendment.  We support efforts to champion free speech and safeguard press rights. We also recognize that the history of the First Amendment is nuanced, and its application has and will continue to evolve over time. Social media companies that have yet to celebrate their 20th birthdays are now viewed as essential forums for speech and expression, and eventually others may rise to take their place. At times, technology also amplifies tensions between freedom of speech and efforts to build a more diverse, equitable and inclusive society.

Throughout our history, Knight Foundation has invested more than $100 million in furthering and reinvigorating First Amendment principles for future generations. In 2017, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University was established to promote freedom of expression in the digital age and support litigation for press freedom. We support PEN America’s efforts to provide colleges with resources and tools to manage questions around free speech, diversity and inclusion on campus. And in 2021, Knight teamed up with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Microsoft and Davis Wright Termaine LLP to launch a national pro bono media law network to support press freedom and newsgathering rights of local journalists.

And we are not finished. In 2022, Knight will unveil new public opinion polling on how Americans view free speech and expression issues today. We believe further understanding of public views and sentiments on these topics is critical for policy makers, educators and others grappling with how principles of free speech play out in an increasingly digital and diverse America. 

To stay informed and join the conversation, sign up below to receive emerging research from Knight on Free Expression and other topics.  And if you are an educator looking for ways campuses can promote both free expression and diversity on campus, join Knight  on October 27th for a webinar hosted by the University of California’s National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement. 

Image (top) by Life Matters on Pexels.