News from the Field

Funding the First Amendment: The time for grantmaking is now

Editor’s note: Last month, we organized a call for journalism funders considering First Amendment support. The call was led by Eric Newton, Innovation Chief at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. We asked Newton—a journalist, historian, philanthropist and educator who has long championed free expression and freedom of information—to share his perspectives with our network.

By Eric Newton | Innovation Chief, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Arizona State University

Think of the First Amendment as 225-year-old stone building in an earthquake zone.

It’s big. It’s old. But by no means is it permanent. Freedom of expression, in fact, is constantly battered from all climes. The courts can change its meaning. Public opinion can change its practical application. Leaders can encourage its use by all—or by only some.

We’ve seen that stone building grow larger over our lifetimes, and that makes us comfortable, maybe too comfortable. Then a social earthquake comes. Even if it shakes loose just a few bricks, damage is done to the whole (and anyone standing underneath) when any stones fall.

If you’re in philanthropy, you may look up at that massive old building and think the First Amendment is so big no grant can make a difference. That’s not so. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s founders, the Knight brothers, took up the court system—and today, so do the foundation’s grantees.

I worked at Knight Foundation for 15 years, on dozens of projects, and can testify that free expression grants matter. You could say they matter most of all. Everything philanthropy funds—from the environment to education to the arts and beyond—depends on freedom of expression, freedom of information, the free flow of the news we need to run our government and our lives.

We are now at the most important First Amendment moment since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Even if President Trump didn’t promise to “open up” libel laws and criminalize flag-burning, even if we didn’t care about gag orders on government scientists, or information vanishing from federal websites, or a new Supreme Court majority, or the possible repeal of net neutrality, reinstitution of spying on journalists, cuts in public broadcasting and the departments that process records requests—we should still care about the future of the First Amendment. For one thing, the way humans express themselves is changing in profound ways in the digital age. New court cases are sure to come, along with new law. The government can’t seize a printing press. It can, however, seize your smart phone. But a smart phone is a printing press. How can this be? Law, like government in general, hasn’t adapted to the modern era.

When the earthquakes hit—be they acts of war or seismic political or social shifts—First Amendment philanthropy matters most. Grant-funded projects have increased education, litigation, networking and public policy decisions involving freedom of expression and freedom to information.

Public education got a boost a decade ago with Sunshine Week, which brings together librarians, journalists, educators, nonprofits and government at all levels. Sunshine Week reaches untold millions of Americans, and has indeed helped increase public awareness of and support for open government.

Some victories speak well of the next generation. Thanks to the combination of classes and high social media use, high school students in Knight Foundation’s last Future of the First Amendment survey were more supportive of free expression than adults. Still, organizations such as the Student Press Law Center exist because adults frequently take freedoms away from student journalists.

In the realm of litigation, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Media Freedom and Access Clinic at Yale, and, soon, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, are stepping in to win important court cases, even as the traditional news industry struggles economically.

All these groups can do more to work together, share information and become a more effective national force for freedom. The family really needs to grow. Everyone needs the free flow of information—republicans, independents and democrats alike. That’s why state and federal Freedom of Information laws pass with strong bipartisan support. (And fail when one party wants to keep something from another.)

So whatever your foundation funds, there’s a First Amendment grant opportunity waiting for you. Please look for it. It’s time to start thinking about freedom of expression and freedom of information as the social infrastructure that makes everything else doable. Media Impact Funders has tracked nearly $8 billion in media grantmaking from nearly 12,000 funders. The data shows only about $300 million from 400 funders is for media access/policy/freedom of expression/First Amendment.

That’s not good enough. Opportunities small and larger are abundant. There’s a whole lot of shaking going on. When part of our old stone building falls off, do something to put it back and clean up the mess it made on the way down. Funders, if you’re looking for the right time to get involved, it is now.

Contact Media Impact Funders’ Executive Director Vince Stehle at vince@mediafunders.org if you want to discuss learning about collaborative funding opportunities in support of the First Amendment.

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