$3.25 Million to Support Knight First Amendment Institute

February 22, 2018

A range of technological, economic, and cultural forces are putting new pressures on the First Amendment — a pillar of our Bill of Rights. The freedoms of speech and of the press protected in the First Amendment ensure that Americans can openly participate in civic life and have access to a robust, free press that helps hold power accountable. Without these freedoms, the promise of a vibrant public square — both physical and digital — can be easily manipulated and the health of our democracy suffers. ​

The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, under the direction of Jameel Jaffer, is a new leader in the fight to protect the First Amendment against both longstanding and emerging threats. Today, Democracy Fund with our colleagues at First Look Media announced a general operating support grant of $3.25 million to support the Institute because their research, litigation, and public education efforts are an important building block in our support for First Amendment freedoms — especially our commitment to ensuring freedom of the press. ​

There have been many rhetorical attacks on the press in 2016 and 2017, and many concerns that these attacks will chip away at trust in the press and consequently result in tangible constraints on the news media. This concern is one shared by experts outside the country as evidenced by the new Inter-American Press Association mission to the United States, where free press advocates from other countries in North and South America are visiting to talk with US legislators and others about their concerns for press freedom here. The founding of the Press Freedom Tracker by a consortium of groups, including Democracy Fund grantees Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, ASNE, Online News Association, PEN America, and Free Press is further evidence. ​

No less significant a concern is the fact that our First Amendment freedoms are under extraordinary stress from a parallel host of challenges associated with digital technologies. The move from print and broadcast to always-on digital distribution and engagement with news has yielded huge benefits in the free flow of information. Yet there is much that needs to be understood about how the platforms operate and how they address issues that concern press freedom. There is an emerging consensus that our new digital public square is subject to manipulation by nefarious actors, and we see example after example of how those who do participate in public conversation can be subjected to harassment and trolling. These trends raise profound questions that require serious answers, including an understanding of how the market place of ideas can work in a digital age where the limiting factor is often human attention.

This is why we have provided significant support to the fast-growing Knight Institute. Though it was only created in 2016 following a significant commitment by the Knight Foundation, it has made its mark quickly with strategic litigation, research, and public education efforts in three areas:​

  • Strengthening legal frameworks for government transparency;
  • Reviving the First Amendment as a constraint on government surveillance; and
  • Protecting the integrity and vitality of public discourse

We are very pleased to announce this support in parallel with the Charles Koch Foundation’s grant of $3.25 million and to join the long list of other foundations and supporters who have previously invested in the Knight Institute — including the Knight Foundation, Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, Hewlett Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Laura and John Arnold, and Columbia University. Broad support from such a range of foundations and donors underscores the critical importance of the freedoms of speech and the press to our democracy, ensures its independence, and reinforces the shared belief that the Knight Institute is well positioned to identify and navigate new threats to these freedoms. ​