President Bollinger's Impact on Free Speech

Over the past two decades at Columbia University, President Lee Bollinger has sought to preserve and strengthen freedom of expression.

Caroline Harting
April 19, 2023

When Lee C. Bollinger became president of Columbia in 2002, he had a long list of priorities for the university. They included expanding the institution’s physical footprint, engaging more widely with global problems, advancing Columbia’s commitment to educational diversity, and deepening core strengths in the liberal arts and in cutting edge research. They also included promoting the free exchange of ideas and information in novel and rigorous ways.

One of the country’s foremost First Amendment scholars, Bollinger has felt a special responsibility to ensure not only that Columbia remained an open forum for discussion but also that it contributed, actively, to the protection of speech around the world. As Bollinger winds down his tenure, Columbia News looks back at some of his major initiatives in this area.

Free Speech in the Digital Age

“The First Amendment needs constant minding in order that its full meaning be preserved.” That conviction, was penned by Bollinger and Alberto Ibargüen, president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in TIME magazine piece in 2016 to mark the launch of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. Understanding the constantly shifting nature of the journalism landscape, the two institutions established the Knight First Amendment Institute to defend freedom of speech and the press in the digital age through strategic litigation, research, and public education.

Over the last seven years, Knight’s impact on free speech in the digital realm has been considerable. One of the institute’s notable early cases, Knight Institute v. Trump, created a precedent holding that government officials' social media accounts are digital town squares in which free speech should be guaranteed. Through a 2019 FOIA case, Francis v. DOJ, hundreds of previously unpublished Office of Legal Counsel opinions were released revealing the evolution of executive privilege. 


Recently, the Knight Institute and journalists from El Faro, a prominent news organization in El Salvador, filed a lawsuit against the NSO group, the company whose malicious surveillance software was used to infiltrate the journalists' iPhones. The suit claims that the “NSO Group’s development and deployment of the spyware violated, among other laws, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which prohibits accessing computers without authorization.” Knight hopes that this case will illuminate how the use of surreptitious surveillance on journalists is a threat to free speech and will demonstrate to digital surveillance manufacturers that they will be liable for their actions in U.S. courts.

Other institutes dedicated to advancing digital journalism that were established at Columbia Journalism School during President Bollinger's tenure include the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, founded in 2010, and the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute, established in 2012. Tow provides journalists with the skills and knowledge to lead the future of digital journalism and serves as a research and development center for the profession as a whole. The Brown Institute is a collaboration between Columbia University and Stanford University, designed to encourage and support new endeavors in media innovation.

Censorship Anywhere is Censorship Everywhere

On the one-year anniversary of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, President Bollinger spoke with Agnès Callamard, former Columbia Global Freedom of Expression (GFoE) director and UN special rapporteur on extra-judicial summary or arbitrary executions. In this conversation, he noted that “censorship anywhere is censorship everywhere.” Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian national, may have been killed in Turkey, but his brutal murder and its chilling effect on press freedom reverberated throughout the world.  

Bollinger established GFoE in 2014 as a way to understand and address these growing global threats to freedom of expression. The initiative brings together international experts and activists with Columbia’s faculty and students to survey and document global freedom of expression court cases in order to strengthen free expression worldwide. It undertakes and commissions research and policy projects, organizes events and conferences, and participates in and contributes to global debates on the protection of freedom of expression and information in the 21st century.

Since 2015, GFoE has hosted an awards ceremony every two years that recognizes judicial decisions and legal representation around the world that strengthen freedom of expression by promoting international legal norms.

Covering Underreported Stories

Established in 2014, Columbia Global Reports (CGR) is a publishing imprint that produces new, ambitious works of journalism and analysis, each on a different underreported story in the world. The reports present stories that matter on a wide spectrum of political, financial, scientific, and cultural topics. This past year, CGR has published books on topics ranging from the Fed’s role in fixing financial crises, how to make air travel greener, and what happens inside prisons and jails.  

Journalism professor and dean emeritus of Columbia Journalism School “Nick Lemann and I started Columbia Global Reports to make sure that important, and often underreported, stories receive the attention they deserve,” said President Bollinger. “Since then, the imprint has consistently been out in front on the issues of the moment with publications on topics like net neutrality, pop culture, fracking, politics, and so many more. I am very proud of what Nick and his team have accomplished and eager to see what comes next.”

Free Speech Scholarship

Since the beginning of his time at Columbia in 2002, Bollinger has explored free speech issues with Columbia students in his political science lecture class, “Freedom of Speech and Press.” He and his class examine various areas of law, including extremist or seditious speech, obscenity, libel, fighting words, the public forum doctrine, and public access to the mass media. 

Some of the texts used in his class are his own, including The Free Speech Century and Social Media, Freedom of Speech, and the Future of our Democracy, which he co-edited with Geoffrey R. Stone, the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law at University of Chicago Law School. Bollinger has been a prolific writer on freedom of expression, authoring eight books on the topic in the last few decades.