How Is This Foundation Supporting Freedom of Speech in an Unsettled Digital Age?

News outlets embracing digital journalism increasingly find themselves in a kind of Catch-22 predicament.


On one hand, digital journalism can shape society and expand concepts like freedom of speech in ways unimagined 20—much less 200!—years ago. On the other hand, these opportunities carry significant risks, thanks to a certain group of professionals as old as the First Amendment itself: lawyers.

In short, the Wild West of digital journalism is rife with land mines. Outlets lack clarity around ever-changing legal definitions of concepts like online privacy. They may nix pieces because they're afraid they'll get sued. And if they do get sued, they lack the resources to mount a suitable defense.

If any of these challenges resonate with you, our dear journalist-readers, rest assured. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation hears you loud and clear. The grantmaker announced that it would team up with Columbia University to create a First Amendment Institute. The $60 million effort will seek to preserve and expand First Amendment rights in the digital age through research and education, and by supporting litigation in favor of protecting freedom of expression and the press.

Let's take a closer look at each of these two charges, shall we?

To the former, the institute's research and education efforts will seek to influence legal debates over First Amendment protections that have faced new scrutiny through the lens of an Internet-connected society. Issues of concern include online privacy rights, free expression on college campuses, and whistle-blower protections. 

To the latter, according to recent Knight poll of leading newsroom editors, 65 percent of respondents felt 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." And why, exactly, are these organizations in a far weaker position? Money, of course:

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.  

And so the Knight First Amendment Institute would take on legal battles that newsrooms have found increasingly costly to pursue on their own. (We know what you're thinking, and yes, it feels very ACLU-ish to us, too. We know what else you're thinking, which is that the institute would have come in handy in 1798 when President Adams signed the Sedition Act, criminalizing false statements that were "critical of the federal government.")

Proving our point, "the basic freedoms we take for granted under the First Amendment are hardly settled," said Alberto Ibargüen, president of Knight Foundation. "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."

Knight and Columbia will contribute five million dollars each in operating funds and $25 million each in endowment funds to the institute, an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Knight's allotment representing the largest journalism grant in its history.

Add it all up, at the institute acknowledges that while the First Amendment promises Americans freedom of speech, it doesn't provide much guidance, much less financial backing, to news organizations committed to ensuring such freedoms in a confusing and litigious digital age.

Turns out freedom of speech ain't exactly free. 

(You saw that one coming a mile away, didn't you?)