The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University seeks proposed papers from junior scholars on the themes of its 2023-24 project, The Future of Press Freedom: Democracy, Law, and the News in Changing Times. These papers will be featured at a symposium of the same name at Columbia University on May 2-3, 2024.

The project, piloted by Senior Visiting Research Scholars RonNell Andersen Jones and Sonja R. West, aims for the first time to explore in real depth what the Constitution, law, and policy can do about identifying and protecting core press functions. It will examine the role of a free and protected press in preserving a healthy American democracy, debate the benefits and disadvantages of special doctrinal protection for performers of press functions, consider the place that protection for newsgatherers holds in the Supreme Court’s evolving First Amendment frameworks, and seek to develop functional doctrines that can protect performers of these roles as new methods for producing and consuming news emerge.

Author Criteria

This Call is open only to junior scholars. Authors who are tenured or tenure-track in any discipline at a college or university, and have not been teaching at either of those ranks for a total of more than seven years, are eligible. We will accept jointly authored submissions, but each of the coauthors must be individually eligible to participate in the Call. There is no limit on the number of submissions by an individual author.

Dates, Deadlines, and Logistics

Interested junior scholars should send a 250-word abstract and a current CV to [email protected] by December 1, 2023. The abstract should describe the central claim of the paper and identify the main arguments in support of that claim. Proposed papers must be new to this project and not previously published in any form. We intend to review all of the abstracts by the end of December, with the goal of commissioning up to four papers of 10,000-12,000 words. The selected papers will be published alongside the work of major legal and communications scholars in an online series hosted by the Knight Institute and will ultimately appear in an edited volume from Cambridge University Press. Selected authors will present their papers as part of a symposium panel.

First drafts will be due April 5, 2024.  These drafts will also be circulated to all participants in advance of the symposium, which will take place on May 2-3, 2024 at Columbia University. Final submissions will be due July 1, 2024.

Each author will receive an honorarium of $6,000 (divided evenly among co-authors if needed).

Project Goals

Questions that might be explored in submissions include, but are not limited to, the following:

The benefits and disadvantages of doctrinal press-function exceptionalism: What are the pros and cons of targeted statutory and constitutional protection of the press functions? Legislatures and courts have tussled in the past with the question of whether speakers and publishers performing a press function need to have legal protections beyond those available to all speakers. As local journalism fades and reporters increasingly come under attack, are there stronger reasons to consider granting journalists privileges that other speakers do not possess? As the news ecosystem changes, how can we guarantee access for some parties to perform government oversight (for example, the right for public-serving newsgatherers to remain on a scene despite dispersal orders at protests or after curfews during pandemics, or the right to access jails or border detention facilities otherwise closed to the public)? What losses to accountability and transparency come from doctrinal homogeneity without any press exceptionalism, and what risks come from carving out special treatment? Some have shied away from the question because of the difficulty of defining “the press,” but can a new focus on press functions provide clarity?

Identifying performers of the press function: How do we identify which functions qualify as press functions? How, if at all, can we shape doctrine and legal policies that grant rights to those acting as proxies for the public without privileging the powerful over the weak? How can we specially protect performers of the press function without ratcheting the levers of authoritarianism by granting power to the government to decide who is privileged? If this line-drawing occurs, what are the best tools for distinguishing performers of the press function from performers of other functions? What protections might be constitutional necessities for fulfilling the wider purpose of the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press, and how can we guarantee that this protection exists in the future, even if media models change?

The role of a free and protected press in a healthy democracy: What specific press functions does a democracy need in order to sustain itself? What are the interrelationships between the fragility of the local news ecosystem and the fragility of American democracy? Is it important to have shared processes for finding truth and common shapers of public conversations? Must a healthy democracy have trans-partisan neutral gatekeepers of the sort that predominated the media in the mid-to-late twentieth century, or does history suggest that a partisan press can combat government secrecy and corruption, provide transparency, and guide healthy, fact-based public discourse? How do the concerns about waning trust in the press parallel concerns about the distrust of other democratic and knowledge institutions and the risks facing those institutions? Given the deep divisions on questions of press trustworthiness, how can we foster newsgathering that is vital to civic health, and what is the proper role of constitutionalism, law, and policy in this space? Are the rights exercised by performers of the press function best viewed as press rights or should they be seen as exercises of the wider collective rights of the citizenry? How do principles of listener rights and debates over trusted information-gathering surrogates illuminate the ways that law and policy should protect press actors? How can press-function protections best be crafted to serve the needs of real information consumers and citizens in a democracy?

Press-function protection and the Supreme Court’s evolving First Amendment frameworks: As a practical matter, how do these conversations situate themselves within broader First Amendment doctrine at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court has been First Amendment-expansive but not press-positive? Has press protection fallen outside the wider First Amendment capaciousness of the Roberts Court, and how might it be conceptualized to tap into that Court’s otherwise aggressively libertarian expressive-freedom agenda? Doctrinally, how do structural changes in the power dynamics between the press and the government alter the assumptions on which the Court’s old media-law cases rest, and does the waning ability of the press to engage in self-protection require more aggressive protection for the press function? Twentieth-century First Amendment doctrine presupposes the existence of a legacy media that has power—in the form of audience reach, financial resources, political clout, and governmental reliance on the press for public messaging. If these facts have changed, should cases declining to read the Constitution to positively protect the press function be reconsidered?