The Knight First Amendment Institute works to defend and strengthen the freedoms of speech and the press in the digital age through strategic litigation, research, and public education. We aim to be a vibrant community, a generator of new ideas, a distinctive voice for these fundamental freedoms in public discourse, and an effective defender of these freedoms in the courts.
Established in 2016 by Columbia University and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Knight Institute has entered the field at a moment when First Amendment freedoms are under siege. The privatization of the public square, the expansion of the surveillance state, the steady creep of government secrecy, the draconian treatment of whistleblowers, the demonization of the media by the nation’s most senior officials—all of these are significant threats to freedoms on which our democracy depends.
The challenges presented by technological change are at least as formidable. New technology has given us new ways of communicating, of understanding the world, and of holding the powerful accountable—and also new forms of censorship and surveillance. Today the courts are struggling to apply analog-era law to digital-era questions. Search engines, social media, and end-to-end encryption have all presented new challenges to propositions that once seemed settled.
Over time, we expect to tackle a broad spectrum of issues relating to First Amendment freedoms. Our initial priorities include:
- Strengthening legal frameworks relating to government transparency. Our work in this area is meant to ensure the public has access to the information it needs to evaluate government policy, hold officials accountable for their decisions, and participate fully in the task of self-government. Our work is distinctive because of its emphasis on legal reform. Our litigation is meant not simply to compel the disclosure of information but to force changes in the policies and practices of executive agencies and the courts. 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 complex and challenging projects designed to expand and strengthen that right.
- Reviving the First Amendment as a meaningful constraint on government surveillance. Edward Snowden’s 2013 disclosures about the NSA sparked an overdue debate about government surveillance, but this debate has focused principally on privacy, and it has not sufficiently addressed the implications of government surveillance for the freedoms of speech, association, and the press. Our work in this area is intended to broaden a too-narrow debate, enrich public understanding of the interplay between First and Fourth Amendment rights, and ensure that courts take First Amendment interests into account when they assess the lawfulness of government surveillance policies.
- Protecting the rights of protest and dissent. Technology has supplied us with new ways of holding government officials accountable, but it has also made it easier than ever for officials to track and suppress unpopular speech—including the speech of government employees who alert the public to fraud, waste, or wrongdoing. Our work in this area is intended to safeguard ordinary citizens’ right to protest government policy and to protect the right of government whistleblowers to disclose information that the public is entitled to know. We believe that the rights of protest and dissent are key to the strength of our democracy.
- Protecting free speech on social media. Conversations that once took place in parks, sidewalks, and public squares now take place on social media. As a result, the policies adopted by companies like Facebook and Twitter can have far-reaching implications for the vitality of public debate. Increasingly, these companies determine what we learn about the world, about the government, and about each other. Our work is intended to ensure that debate on new communications platforms is, in the Supreme Court’s words, "uninhibited, robust, and wide-open."