News organizations’ ability to champion First Amendment rights is slipping, survey of leading editors finds

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to strengthen free speech law with $200,000 from Knight Foundation


Download the report here (PDF)


A news industry ‘less able’ to defend freedom” by Eric Newton on Knight Blog, 4/21/2016

MIAMI – April 21, 2016 – Editors in leading newsrooms across the country say that the news industry is less able to pursue legal cases around free speech and freedom of the press issues than it was 10 years ago, according to a new report. The report, which surveyed top editors in major print and online publications, was released today by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in association with American Society of News Editors (ASNE), Associated Press Media Editors (APME) and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Knight Foundation also announced today $200,000 in new support to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which will expand their work in providing legal assistance to journalists and shaping a new path for free speech law. Since 1970, Reporters Committee has provided free legal assistance, research and guidance to reporters and news organizations. The organization will use the new funding and two previous endowments to expand the Knight Litigation Project, an effort to help journalists and news organizations pursue First Amendment cases that have the potential to explore new legal territory.

This changing landscape of First Amendment defense was evident from the survey of 66 leading editors from newsrooms across the country. It underlines a shift in the traditional role of members of the press as guardians of the First Amendment, with 65 percent of the editors responding that the news industry as a whole is weaker in its ability to pursue legal activity around First Amendment-related issues than it was 10 years ago. Fifty-three percent also agreed that “news organizations are no longer prepared to go to court to preserve First Amendment freedoms.”

“News organizations have a long history of championing our First Amendment rights, helping to shape and clarify laws on privacy, information access, libel and press freedom. It is vital that they continue this role to ensure accountability and transparency from our public figures and institutions,” said Sam Gill, Knight Foundation vice president for learning and impact. “With this in mind, the report underlines some important insights suggesting that journalism’s focus on the First Amendment may be dwindling and that we need to study and do more to protect its future.”

The news leaders surveyed were primarily based at large organizations. While 65 percent of them said they were still taking on First Amendment cases, they emphasized that economic pressures and digital age demands have made it more difficult for the industry as a whole and in particular small and local news organizations to pursue these cases. On editor who was surveyed said: “Many of the access issues are happening at a microlocal level, where denying records and closing meetings is happening at a greater rate…and small papers don’t have the resources to contest illegal denials or meeting closures.”   

Other key findings include:

· Money cited as key limiting factor in pursuing legal action: Of the editors who described the industry as “less able to go to court” 89 percent cited economic pressures as the main reason. More than a quarter (27 percent) of the editors said there were cases at their own news organizations that could have been pursued but were not.   

· Many unsettled questions in the digital age: There was a clear consensus that the digital age has brought new challenges to press freedom, but few ways of addressing them. Most news leaders said that laws related to the First Amendment were behind the times. A majority (59 percent) disagreed with the statement, “First Amendment law is largely settled,” and 88 percent agreed with the statement, “In the digital age, there are many unsettled legal questions about the scope of free expression.” Seventy-one percent agreed with the statement, “First Amendment law has not kept up with technological developments.”

· Editors perceive a decline in cases that blaze new First Amendment ground: While the report showed that large organizations are still taking on First Amendment cases, editors perceive a potential decline in cases where a news organization is going on “offense.” Of those surveyed, 44 percent said they were less able to go on the “offensive.”

To read the full report visit:

The survey highlights the need to understand the changing First Amendment landscape. Knight Foundation’s $200,000 commitment to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press will advance that understanding through legal action by expanding the Knight Litigation Project.

The project will take on more local cases, recognizing legal resources are limited in many local communities, as well as digital cases that can help ensure the law keeps pace with technological change. It will also focus on supporting the legal interests of nonprofit news outlets, freelancers and other journalists. 

In particular, the funding will be used to create a new attorney position for the Knight Litigation Project at the Reporters Committee. Information about applying for that position is available on the Reporters Committee’s website at

“With this support, the Reporters Committee can put more legal resources in the field for the benefit of citizens, journalists and the industry as a whole,” said Bruce Brown, executive director of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “This new position and the Knight Litigation Project represent a commitment to defend the First Amendment, ensure public accountability, and protect our common interest in the flow of information.”

“The digital disruption has uprooted the traditional business model for journalism, making it harder for newsrooms to pursue First Amendment cases and ensure the rights that it protects are upheld,” said Shazna Nessa, Knight Foundation director for journalism. “The Reporters Committee will help to fill this critical gap, providing newsrooms and journalists a path to pursue important cases, while helping expand and clarify free speech rights in the digital age.”

Support for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is part of Knight Foundation’s efforts to promote press freedom and information access, and ensure that the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment are preserved. Knight Foundation has made many investments in this area, and recently released a report on free expression on college campuses.

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. The Foundation believes that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit

About the Reporters Committee for Freedom of Press

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press was founded by leading journalists and media lawyers in 1970 when the nation’s news media faced a wave of government subpoenas asking reporters to name confidential sources. Today it provides pro bono representation, amicus curiae support, and other legal resources to protect First Amendment freedoms and the newsgathering rights of journalists. Funded by corporate, foundation, and individual contributions, the Reporters Committee serves the nation’s leading news organizations; thousands of reporters, editors, and media lawyers; and many more who use our online and mobile resources. For more information, go to, or follow us on Twitter @rcfp.

American Society of News Editors (ASNE)

The American Society of News Editors focuses on leadership development and journalism-related issues. Founded in 1922 as a nonprofit professional organization, ASNE promotes fair, principled journalism, defends and protects First Amendment rights, and fights for freedom of information and open government. Leadership, innovation, diversity and inclusion in coverage and the journalism work force, youth journalism, news literacy and the sharing of ideas are also key ASNE initiatives.

Associated Press Media Editors (APME)

APME advances the principles and practices of responsible journalism. We support and mentor a diverse network of current and emerging newsroom leaders. We champion the First Amendment and promote freedom of information. We train journalists to realize their aspirations and thrive in a rapidly-changing environment. We promote forward-looking ideas that benefit news organizations and the communities they serve. We work closely with the Associated Press, the largest independent media operation in the world. Learn more at


Anusha Alikhan, Director of Communications, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, 305-908-2646, [email protected]