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May 17, 2016, 9:19 a.m.
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LINK: www.knightfoundation.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Shan Wang   |   May 17, 2016

The Knight Foundation and Columbia University are partnering to launch a new organization focused on First Amendment research and litigation. Knight and Columbia will each commit $5 million in operating funds and $25 million in endowment funds (for an initial total of $60 million) to a new nonprofit affiliated with the university called the First Amendment Institute. (Disclosure: Knight is also a supporter of Nieman Lab.)

The newly formed organization’s primary activities will be litigation and research and scholarship around freedom of speech issues in the digital age, though the director and board of the Institute will ultimately decide the proportion of activities, said Eric Newton, innovation chief at Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University and one of the leads on the project. Expect lawsuits: “There are not enough legal champions of free expression.”

According to the release:

The lnstitute launches amid emerging First Amendment concerns on such topics as: National Security Agency electronic surveillance of journalists and news sources; privacy rights on digital platforms; the overall freedom of internet platforms; use of digital technology in courtrooms and access to court records; free speech on college campuses; the lack of a strong constitutional shield for journalists reporting sensitive topics; a crackdown on government employees who talk with the media; and government delays and refusals in handling FOIA requests.

The main activities of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University will be in the areas of litigation, research, and education. The institute will watch for court cases that offer an opportunity to define First Amendment law in the digital age, with a goal of achieving significant victories, and priority given to cases with digital components. Through its research, fellowships, publications, lectures and other events, the institute will seek to help the legal community, including the nation’s network of legal clinics, understand the principles underlying the First Amendment and how they apply to new technology.

“The First Amendment is not self-executing; only people can make it what it has become, through our attitudes, actions and, more pointedly, through the courts,” Lee C. Bollinger, president of Columbia University, said in a statement announcing the Institute. “In the past, news organizations pursued and won key court cases defining free expression. But such cases can be enormously expensive and many media — both established and new — are increasingly hard-pressed in the current economic environment to support First Amendment legal action. While the digital age has opened up new opportunities for accountability journalism, we need to fill the void and continue to champion free expression through litigation, research, and education.”

Photo of Columbia University’s Low Library by Wally Gobetz used under a Creative Commons license.

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