Keynote Address at the Global Conference for Media Freedom

President Bollinger delivered a virtual keynote address at the Global Conference for Media Freedom hosted in Tallinn, Estonia. He spoke about the threats to global freedom of expression. He highlighted what universities can do to support and nurture the norms, institutions, and individuals working to protect the free exchange of ideas and information, with a special focus on Columbia’s schools, programs, and initiatives in this area.

February 10, 2022

I want to speak this afternoon about a subject, I could have picked many, that involves universities, and Columbia in particular. The subject of your work and of this conference is very, very dear to me, and there can be no doubt that the values reflected in this conference are facing fraught times. We are living through an era when threats to global freedom of expression are mounting, when democratic principles are being eroded and authoritarian governments are rising in number and prominence. In particular, we have witnessed over the last decade a dramatic increase in the imprisonment of journalists and in violence against journalists and activists, from both state and non-state actors. Additionally, criminal and civil defamation measures are increasingly used to silence speech, alongside encroaching internet surveillance by governments. There has been a disturbing rise in voices that seek to delegitimatize journalism and the people who practice it. 

Fortunately, the global norms that courts, with great difficulties, began to build during the last decades of the 20th century, are providing strong counterweights to these repressive trends. Regional and national courts are issuing innovative decisions that build upon existing international standards to uphold the essential principle of the rights of the governed to be informed, to speak freely, and to give their consent. 

And this is what I want to focus on now: We are all well aware that freedom of expression lives with a deficit of enforcement powers. At the international level, we have excellent statements of principles (beginning with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), but weak implementation. The regional treaties (modeled on their international forebears) and their judicial institutions are providing excellent interventions. And, of course, national courts are always capable of giving real meaning to international norms and to positive national laws. As I said a moment ago, this highly decentralized system is yielding significant benefits for freedom of expression. My strong view is that we ought to do everything we can to support and nurture this trend. I believe that universities can play a very useful role in this context. 

At Columbia, we have more academic work devoted to freedom of speech and press than any other university in the world. It begins with the great School of Journalism, but it spreads throughout the institution—schools of law, international affairs, and engineering; arts and sciences, and to the new Knight First Amendment Institute, a university-affiliated body that both conducts research and education and actually brings litigation.  Some years ago, I established another university institution called Columbia Global Freedom of Expression. I appointed Agnès Callamard (now leading Amnesty International) to lead the project. It is now led by Catalina Botero. These great thinkers and advocates have established a powerful institution devoted to helping develop global legal norms of freedom of expression. It is worth highlighting three initiatives of Columbia Global Freedom of Expression. 

"Universities share the values, they are the natural partners, of great journalism, and they have as much interest in preserving the conditions of freedom of thought and communication as anyone."

The first is to provide a publicly available database website of the ever-growing case law arising from all around the world dealing with freedom of speech and press. It is amazing to me that before this database was created there was nowhere judges or litigants could look to see what other courts had decided. The gathering and systematizing of decisions is a critical step in the development of the idea that there is actually a jurisprudence of global norms, something that by its very existence both demonstrates and fosters a sense of a collective effort to build and enforce legal norms. (This is a technique used by great treatise writers, especially in the early part of the 20th century to create common law of contracts, torts, and other fields.)

The second initiative is to offer training opportunities for judges and teaching materials for educating students in global norms on freedom of expression, and also to provide a network for advocates around the world. We hope this will also be important in the United States, in encouraging scholars of the First Amendment to become more knowledgeable about the increasingly global dimensions of free speech and press. More and more we all say we live in an interconnected world with its global issues, and global communications technologies and systems. As such, it is no longer entirely sensible to divide the world intellectually between those who study domestic rights and those who study international rights. These two realms are merging all the time in reality, just as in the last century, we progressed from free speech and press being treated locally to being regarded nationally as issues and communications technologies became national in scope.  And so, we very much need many more scholars working on the global front. And moving now to a very large-scale, our very rationale of freedom of expression must evolve from that of protecting basic human rights, still very important, to a rationale of the need for citizens globally to communicate with each other, certainly about global issues that increasingly dominate our lives.

And the third and last initiative is to establish means of recognizing and honoring courageous and creative decisions and legal services that further global freedom of expression, as models of what should be emulated. As the Pulitzer Prizes, based of course at Columbia, show, prizes can matter. To be sure all of these efforts are small contributions to just one dimension of the problems of providing protections to citizens and journalists, and they are long-term not immediate remedies. Still, I have seen them work in the extraordinary development of the First Amendment and the concepts of free speech and press over the past 100 years in the United States. There is an ecology involved in the emergence of jurisprudence, which once created, can be very powerful in its own right. This allows courts to look at other courts, litigants at other litigants, scholars and teachers and students to exist and to be inspired.

Finally, in my remarks this afternoon, I want through these examples to highlight just how valuable universities can be in helping to further freedoms of speech and press. What Columbia has done in these and many other ways can be replicated and expanded everywhere. Universities share the values, they are the natural partners, of great journalism, and they have as much interest in preserving the conditions of freedom of thought and communication as anyone. There can and should be more alignment in our efforts to defend and expand the cause of freedom. Thank you very much for this opportunity to speak with you this afternoon.