Today I’m thrilled to announce that three major foundations — Democracy Fund, First Look Media, and the Charles Koch Foundation — have pledged a total of $6.5 million in new support to the Knight Institute. The support of these three foundations will give the Institute significant new capacity to investigate and address the most pressing challenges to the freedoms of speech and the press. Coming at a moment when our democracy is under extraordinary stress, the partnership of these three foundations also makes a timely and powerful statement about the depth of support for core democratic freedoms.
Our new funders worked with us to structure their support in a way that strengthens the Institute’s independence. Democracy Fund and First Look Media (both associated with the Omidyar Group) have pledged a total of $3.25 million over five years in general operating support. The Charles Koch Foundation has pledged $3.25 million over five years to the Institute’s endowment, and this contribution will trigger an equal contribution from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation under a matching challenge that was announced when Columbia University and Knight Foundation established the Institute. Like our other funders, the funders announcing their support today have emphasized to us that their support is intended to give the Institute the ability to chart its own course, develop its own positions, and make its own decisions about what projects to pursue and how to pursue them.
I’m proud of what the Knight Institute has accomplished in a very short time. We’ve been operational for not much more than a year, but our litigation docket includes a challenge to the Office of Legal Counsel’s practice of withholding legal memos that constitute the binding law of the executive branch; an effort to shed light on border agents’ practice of searching travelers’ laptops and cellphones — a project that has already borne fruit; and a closely watched challenge to President Trump’s practice of blocking Twitter users who have criticized his policies. We’ve hosted public programs that have featured some of the most provocative and insightful thinkers at the intersection of law, journalism, and technology. Our essay series on emerging threats to First Amendment freedoms has encouraged debate and reflection about issues ranging from troll armies to the heckler’s veto.
We are only just getting started. I don’t need to tell you that the freedoms of speech and the press are more vulnerable, and their meaning more contested, than at any time in recent memory. The privatization of the public square, the emergence of new technologies of disinformation and suppression, 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 raise complex and urgent questions relating to the substance and strength of First Amendment freedoms.
With the new resources we’re announcing today, we’ll be able to engage these questions with new vigor. We have ground-breaking litigation in the works. We’ll be publishing path-breaking essays that tackle issues relating to technology and antitrust, cybersecurity, machine speech, and discrimination and harassment on social media. This spring, we’ll co-host, with the Columbia Law Review, a major symposium on the First Amendment and inequality. In all of this work, as in the work we’ve already done, we’ll 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.
Thank you for your engagement with the Institute. The Institute’s strength derives in part from the experience of its board, the energy and creativity of its staff, and the generosity and dedication of its funders, but it derives most of all from the sustained engagement of a community comprised of people who share a commitment to the freedoms of speech and the press, and who share a conviction that the future of our democracy depends on the thoughtful defense of these freedoms. Thank you for being a part of this community.
Jameel Jaffer is executive director of the Knight Institute.