The Knight Institute invites submissions for a symposium, “Regardless of Frontiers: The First Amendment and the Exchange of Ideas Across Borders,” to be held at Columbia University on October 18, 2024. The symposium will explore the changing role of the international border as a venue, justification, or pretext for censorship or surveillance, and as an obstacle to censorship and persecution by foreign governments. A more detailed discussion of the theme of the symposium is below, followed by logistical information for those who wish to participate.

Description and Aims

Governments including our own have often used international borders to justify surveillance and censorship. During the Cold War, the U.S. government frequently denied visas to foreign artists, writers, and scholars whose political views the government wanted to delegitimize or suppress—a practice that was resurrected during the “war on terror.” Today, the government uses its authority over the border to justify the surveillance of social media, the interrogation of travelers about their political and religious views, the warrantless search of travelers’ laptops and cellphones, the imposition of limits on Americans’ right to engage with foreign speakers and to access foreign communications platforms, and the suspension of the constitutional rules that would ordinarily apply to the surveillance of Americans’ emails and telephone calls. Within the United States, visitors and immigrants are subject to social media surveillance throughout their stays, and immigrant activists sometimes face official retaliation for their First Amendment–protected activities.

Technologies allowing people to communicate, organize, and transmit evidence of government wrongdoing in real time around the globe have challenged our assumptions about the implications of borders for expressive activity. At the same time, the U.S. border’s value as a shield for dissent seems to have eroded dramatically. The governments of China, India, Iran, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, among others, have reached across borders to intimidate or even assassinate journalists and dissidents, including those living in open societies. Powerful spyware developed and supplied by (among others) Greek, Israeli, and North Macedonian companies has facilitated these transnational attacks. 

While the First Amendment and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights have been understood at some basic level to protect the free exchange of ideas “regardless of frontiers” (to quote the ICCPR), many difficult questions about the scope and significance of this protection remain unresolved. These questions will become more pressing as the world enters a new era of international conflict in which battles are waged in the digital sphere as much as on the ground. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence made specific reference to “digital authoritarianism and transnational repression” in its 2024 threat assessment, noting that “Foreign states are advancing digital and physical means to repress individual critics and diaspora communities abroad, including in the United States, to limit their influence over domestic publics. States are also growing more sophisticated in digital influence operations that try to affect foreign publics’ views, sway voters’ perspectives, shift policies, and create social and political upheaval.”

The symposium will convene scholars, practitioners, policymakers, and activists to explore the issues above, and to generate new writing in these areas—theoretical, doctrinal, historical, and empirical. We hope this symposium will generate new scholarship on a variety of topics, including:

  • The extent to which immigrant communities are surveilled, the mechanisms of this surveillance, and the implications of this surveillance for the freedoms of speech and association;
  • The history of censorship and surveillance undertaken at the border, or justified by reference to the government’s authority to control the border;
  • The implications of government surveillance and censorship of foreigners for the right and ability of U.S. residents to receive information and ideas;
  • The scope of the First Amendment right to receive information and ideas from abroad;
  • First Amendment doctrine relating to the right of foreign citizens to participate in the U.S. political process, and, more generally, the First Amendment rights of foreign citizens;
  • Surveillance and harassment of journalists and activists when crossing the U.S. border;
  • Official retaliation against immigrants and immigrants’ rights activists for First Amendment–protected activities within the U.S.;
  • The history and contemporary practice of “ideological exclusion”—the exclusion of foreign citizens from the United States on the basis of their perceived or actual political beliefs;
  • Activities by foreign governments aimed at intimidating dissidents and journalists residing in the U.S., and the U.S. government’s responsibilities with respect to these activities.

Dates, Deadlines, and Logistics

If you are interested in writing a paper for the symposium:

Please send us a 250-word abstract of your proposed paper by Friday, May 31, 2024.  The abstract should describe the central claim you intend to make in the paper and identify the main arguments you intend to offer in support of that claim. Please submit the abstract to [email protected]. We intend to review all of the abstracts by early June, with the goal of commissioning 6–8 papers of 4,000-8,000 words.

If we invite you to write a paper for the symposium, your first draft will be due Friday, September 27, 2024. First drafts will be circulated to all participants in advance of the symposium, which will take place on October 18, 2024, at Columbia University. Final papers will be due soon after the symposium. Papers will be published on the Knight Institute’s website. Each author will receive an honorarium of $6,000 (divided between co-authors as applicable). The Knight Institute will also cover authors’ travel and accommodation expenses for the symposium itself.

If you are interested in participating in the symposium as a speaker/discussant for symposium papers written by others:

Please submit a short statement of interest to [email protected] by Friday, May 31, 2024. Your statement of interest should be no more than a few paragraphs and should describe your relevant background, what specific questions are of most interest to you, what you expect to be able to contribute to the discussion, and how you hope to use any insights gained from the convening.