The Knight First Amendment Institute defends the freedoms of speech and the press in the digital age through strategic litigation, research, and public education. Our aim is to promote a system of free expression that is open and inclusive, that broadens and elevates public discourse, and that fosters creativity, accountability, and effective self-government.
The Knight First Amendment Institute was established in 2016 by Columbia University and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to safeguard free expression in the shifting landscape of the digital age. Our litigation, research, and public education efforts focus on new manifestations of longstanding threats to freedom of speech and the press, and the many novel challenges arising from evolving technologies. The privatization of the public square, the expansion of the surveillance state, the steady creep of government secrecy, the demonization of the media by the nation’s most senior officials, the aggregation of massive amounts of personal data in the hands of private corporations, machine-amplified distortions of public discourse—these are just some of the challenges to the free expression system on which our democracy depends. We seek to address these and other emerging threats, and to promote legal and policy reforms that will safeguard freedom of speech and the press in the future. In all our work, we seek to be a vibrant community, a generator of new ideas, and a leading defender of First Amendment freedoms in the courts.
Our current priorities:
- Protecting public discourse in the digital age. Conversations that once took place in parks, sidewalks, and public squares now take place largely online through the services of private actors whose platforms increasingly determine what we learn about the world, about government, and about each other. Though these new platforms connect us in extraordinary ways, the public knows little about the algorithms that power them and the private surveillance that supports them. And we are only beginning to understand how easily these platforms can be distorted through harassment, flooding, the use of bots, and other mechanisms of disinformation and suppression. Our goal is to illuminate the forces that are shaping new communications platforms, and to safeguard the diversity and integrity of public discourse online.
- Strengthening legal frameworks for government transparency. Our work in this area seeks to ensure the public has the information it needs to evaluate government policies, hold officials to account for their decisions, and participate fully in the process of self-government. Our aim is not simply to compel the disclosure of information that the public is entitled to know, but to force changes in the practices of government agencies and the courts that will empower citizens as decision makers. We believe that the First Amendment embraces a broad right of access to information in the hands of the government, and we will invest time, energy, and creativity in projects designed to expand and strengthen that right.
- Reviving the First Amendment as a constraint on government surveillance. Recent disclosures about the National Security Agency have sparked an overdue debate about government surveillance, but this debate has focused mainly on privacy, and has not fully addressed the implications of government surveillance for the freedoms of speech, association, and the press. Our work in this area is intended to broaden this debate to enrich public understanding of the interplay between First and Fourth Amendment rights, and to ensure that courts take First Amendment interests into account when they assess the lawfulness of government surveillance policies.