Guest Opinion: 1st Amendment defenders invest millions
“Freedom of speech is in retreat,” the cover story for The Economist proclaimed last week. While the article acknowledged that technology has greatly empowered people to express themselves as never before, and that the world as a whole is freer than it was during the depths of the Cold War, it also revealed the disturbing trend of increased censorship and other restrictions on freedom of speech and freedom of the press in recent years.
These infringements may take the form of crackdowns by tyrannical governments such as those in China and Egypt, or the enforcement of broad and vague laws prohibiting “hate speech” or blasphemy. They also include the actions of private individuals and groups who value a supposed right not to be offended above the right to free speech, whether employed through the “assassin’s veto,” particularly by radical Islamists who execute those who criticize their religious beliefs, or the “heckler’s veto,” often used by students on college campuses to shout down or blacklist speakers with whom they disagree.
Even the United States, which enshrined the freedom of speech in the First Amendment to the Constitution, ranked only 41st — not even among the top tier of countries — in Reporters Without Borders’ latest annual World Press Freedom Index.
“The main cause of concern for (RWB) continues to be the current administration’s obsessive control of information, which manifests itself through the war on whistleblowers and journalists’ sources, as well as the lack of government transparency, which reporters have continually criticized,” the report asserted.
So it is welcome news that the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Columbia University announced they are each contributing $30 million to establish the Knight First Amendment Institute at the university “to preserve and expand First Amendment rights in the digital age through research and education, and by supporting litigation in favor of protecting freedom of expression and the press,” according to a Knight Foundation press release.
“The basic freedoms we take for granted under the First Amendment are hardly settled,” Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibarguen said in a statement. “As the Internet becomes even more integral to our lives, we face significant questions about the evolution of our rights. Threats to free speech are on the rise, and our hope is that the Institute will not just protect but help reinvigorate First Amendment principles for future generations.”
As free-speech rights come under increasing assault from the government, violent extremists and the apostles of political correctness, it is heartening to know that others are willing to make such an investment in protecting this fundamental liberty. Only by upholding these rights may we preserve a free society and hold our government accountable for its actions.