Why we must champion the First Amendment in the digital age – Knight Foundation

Why we must champion the First Amendment in the digital age

Above: Photo illustration by Jessica Hodder.

Today, Knight Foundation announced its largest journalism grant ever in creating the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. The institute will seek to understand and explain what First Amendment law is and should be in the digital age, but more than that, it will go to court to preserve and expand free expression.


Why? Because America sorely needs new First Amendment champions. Half the news leaders recently polled in a Knight-funded survey said the news industry is no longer prepared to defend the First Amendment. Attacks on our freedoms are escalating, and changing technology will bring new waves of cases. (Police can’t confiscate a printing press or shut down a broadcast studio. Why can they take your cellphone?)

A colleague of mine at Arizona State, Dan Gillmor, on Monday declared the nation to be in the grip of a First Amendment crisis. “We’ll need to do things individually, and as members of communities at all levels, to change the trajectory,” he wrote. “This truly is an emergency. Let’s hope it’s not too late to do something about it.”

Dan believes foundations aren’t thinking big enough to take on the powerful forces centralizing and controlling the internet. But billionaires could and should, he argues.

I’m more optimistic about how foundations can help.  Even if the billions come, I would argue, knowing what the foundations have done and want to do could be instructive.

Here are three essentials of effective First Amendment grants culled from more than $100 million Knight Foundation has given for free expression over the decades. A project may have one, two or all three:

1.     Research and education. The lesson: Stick with it. More than a decade ago, Knight Foundation helped the American Society of News Editors and many others start an annual event called Sunshine Week, during which millions of Americans see stories of all kinds about the importance and impact of our Freedom of Information laws. Today, new policies and laws are introduced during the week.

Also a decade ago, the foundation started Future of the First Amendment surveys, showing how most American high school students didn’t know about or care about our most essential rights and tracking the ways that can be changed. Knight has done all manner of education grants: Public service announcements, First Amendment schools, social media contests, and a major grant to the Newseum, home to the world’s largest First Amendment, on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.

2.     Networks: Place as many bets as you can. Scores of excellent groups already work on this issue, from the Sunshine and Government Initiative to openthegovernment.org, from the Student Press Law Center to the Society of Professional Journalists and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. More organizations are confronting the policy issues all the time.

Yet we are stronger if we fight together. Organizations such as the American Association of Libraries and the League of Women Voters, for example, are great natural partners with technologists from the open data movement funded by the Knight News Challenge. New money can fund new networks and partnerships.  

3.     Litigation: Go to courtand win. The foundation has created a Knight FOI Fund for lawsuits with the National Freedom of Information Coalition and Investigative Reporters and Editors, a Knight Litigation Project with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Yale Media Freedom and Access Clinic. Among them they’ve won too many cases to list. The Columbia project will expand on the types of cases already taken by these groups. Though policy work is important, litigation can sometimes achieve much more much faster.

Some of the best Knight projects have been combinations of research, education, networks and litigation. The Inter American Press Association lowered the “impunity rate” (the percentage of people who get away with murdering journalists) in the Americas. They used a rapid journalism response, an ad campaign, visits to heads of state and cases before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The Committee to Protect Journalists expanded that campaign worldwide, also with positive results.

The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia is a marriage of litigation, research and education. What’s more, scholarship will inform all of the above, particularly litigation strategies. You could say Columbia’s approach builds on what Knight has learned. Several other foundations are already involved, including Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York and Hewlett Foundation.

Whether the First Amendment’s saviors are news companies (some still sue), tech companies (some do help), foundations (some do give) or billionaires and the people themselves (please step up) – or as is more likely, a combination—I hope they do not expect victory in one powerful utopian stroke.

The growth of freedom in America has been measured in projects both big and small, taking victories one by one. We fight. They fight. No one stops. It never ends. It can’t. Arguing about freedom is perhaps the greatest exercise of that freedom.

Eric Newton is the innovation chief at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University and a consultant to Knight Foundation. Previously, he spent 15 years at Knight, expanding the journalism and media innovation program and advising Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen. Tonight, Ibargüen and Newton will receive 2016 Freedom of the Press Awards from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.  

Recent Content