Pretty words, flowery concepts, firm logic. Why is it when there is a a national endowment/university hybridized research project which seeks to expand knowledge and move the dialogue forward, those words come tumbling down in a heap of symbolic gestures that are further trampled to death by political agendas and motives?
In this case, the $60 million hybrid is that formed by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Columbia University to re-examine the First Amendment through the perspective of modern technology and social media. The Foundation and Columbia vow to “use litigation as well as research and education to fight for freedom of expression in an ever-evolving digital era.”
As I said, pretty words.
The last half of the 20th century saw court cases that really defined and pushed the First Amendment forward, said Alberto Ibarguen, president of Knight Foundation. But it’s not the same environment, with the technology and tools of information gathering and dissemination changing rapidly, and there not being nearly the same number of newspaper outlets with the resources to take on the fights.
The focus would be on how freedom of expression is defined in a digital age filled with advances in technology that judges who decided cases decades ago couldn’t have seen coming, said Eric Newton, a consultant who was formerly a longtime journalism program leader at Knight and worked on the institute project.
“A citizen who can carry a cellphone, which is a printing press and a broadcast studio, in his or her pocket has legal standing that courts have yet to sort out,” he said, pointing out that whether that citizen has journalist protections currently varies from state to state.
“If everything gets re-litigated in a digital frame, that means that the First Amendment as we come to know it could change, and it could change dramatically,” he said. “It’s only the way it is because of some court cases that happened decades ago.”
Now I don’t hold out much hope for this joint project. In the modern media age, those needing the most First Amendment protection are not the voiceless; everyone can have a voice in the digital age.
Instead, those who need the most protection of freedom of expression are those who utter words which offend the delicate sensibilities of our young 21st Century culture. And since the focus is on the evolving nature of mass communication, the first thing one thinks of are those portions of the blogosphere who criticize the popular, Facebook-friendly political paradigm of the moment which seeks to protect its pet causes with a voracious petulance and possessiveness, and whose mission seems to be to destroy the reputations and livelihood of those who dare not concur with a smile and a nod.
Based on the Knight Foundation’s predictable, inclusive, progressive and encompassing mission statement, I highly doubt they will defend a blogger’s criticism of the predominant socially liberal cultural motifs.
Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged.
And if the ostensible aim of this project is to enlarge the First Amendment’s scope to include various branches of new media, the range of expression it finds itself “defending” will transcend and defy the mannerly repression such do-gooders are accustomed to. I suspect this will result in $60 million worth of selective Constitutional defenses.