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President of Columbia University on free press

Lee Bollinger Date: 31 Dec, 2010

As the need for information in our globalized world increases, we are faced with challenges such as censorship and the decreasing capacity of a media industry submitted to financial constraints to fight it. These were some of the questions addressed by Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia University, who presented his new book 'Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-Open: A Free Press for new Century' and discussed the freedoms of speech and the press at Polis. For a full coverage of the event, download the lecture audio, access Polis Director Charlie Beckett's blog entry and also read the following lecture report, by Polis intern Jasmine Chan.

In a talk chaired by LSE Director Howard Davies, Bollinger gave an overview of the path followed by the United States during the last century to achieve a free press that enables and protects their national public forum. He also pointed out that the challenge for this century is to ensure freedom of press for a global public forum.

In an integrated world, Bollinger argues, “censorship anywhere becomes censorship everywhere”. And that is why there is a need for a strong and free press, capable of accessing and delivering as much information as possible.

The problem, he points out, is that, contradictorily, the same advances in communication technologies that allow unprecedented information flow are also presenting financial challenges to the traditional media groups, which are reducing their staff and contracting international coverage.

Although there is no simple answer to this question, Bollinger believes that public financing and universities becoming more active in reporting could be possible solutions, as the free market is not sufficient to provide the kind of journalism that we need in democratic societies.

Bollinger became the President of Columbia University on June 1, 2002. He is also a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the Washington Post Company, a Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company of Great Britain, and a member of the Pulitzer Prize Board.

Widely published on legal and constitutional issues involving free speech and press, Bollinger books include: ‘Eternally Vigilant: Free Speech in the Modern Era’; ‘Images of a Free Press; The Tolerant Society: Freedom of Speech and Extremist Speech in America’; and ‘Contract Law in Modern Society: Cases and Materials’. He continues to teach an undergraduate course, “Freedom of Speech and Press” at Columbia each year.

Lecture Report

Freedom of Speech Within A Global Media System

Jasmine Chan
Polis intern

Freedom of speech has increasingly substantial implications for modern journalism, as the news media grows increasingly transnational in both the focus of its coverage and its intended readership. In a Polis public lecture, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger addressed the potential for developing a free press system based on the American First Amendment on a global scale.

Using his new book Uninhibited, Robust and Wide Open as a foundation for a highly relevant discussion on how to achieve international standards of free speech, Bollinger first gave a historical analysis of the recent 20th-century evolution of the First Amendment as it gradually became the primary conceptual standard around which journalistic freedom is measured, despite having been part of the United States Constitution since the 1800’s.

Landmark Supreme Court cases from the last century such as 1964’s The New York Times Co. vs Sullivan were crucial in establishing the importance of a “national public forum” at the expense of more local or state authority. During an era of a widespread struggle for civil rights in the United States, the press was understood to act not only as a source of information for citizens but also as an institution endowed with an element of public trust.

Bollinger cited the economic consolidation of newspaper ownership and the subsequent rise of monopolistic media profits as a primary reason behind the ability for American journalism to sustain high levels of quality reporting whilst rejecting censorship, allowing a public mindset of free speech as an inherent right to prevail.

The 21st-century brings a distinctly different set of concerns. With the prevalence of a global capitalist economic system and the development of new media technologies, Bollinger pointed out that “censorship anywhere now means censorship everywhere.” Given the rising demand for a higher volume of instantaneous news media, censorship at any level has now holds drastic implications for the possibility of sustaining international free speech standards.

Bollinger further pointed out that a serious contradiction within our current media system is the concurrent rise in the global demand for more information, most often through digital sources, simultaneously undermines the financial basis for traditional media outlets, which has led to the closure of foreign bureaus and a general lack of media presence in areas of important potential coverage, like war and disaster zones.

In order to establish a new global forum which not only deals with censorship but brings with it the capacity for quality global reporting, Bollinger suggested that it is first necessary to dispel commonly held “myths” such as general assumptions about a capitalistic free market’s inherent ability to end censorship or that the proliferation of voices on the Internet naturally signifies a higher level of inclusivity.

According to Bollinger, it is not simply not enough to expect the growing numbers of ‘citizen journalists’ to bear the brunt of the collective need for information and news, but rather we must encourage investing in institutions devoted to improving the “professional culture of journalism as an independent effort to understand the world.”

Bollinger also emphasized the importance of universities as potential major players within media and journalism, and did not preclude the possibility of universities and other philanthropic institutions funding or running news media sources.

Journalism and news media will inarguably play a substantial role in our globalized world, and while it remains to be seen which major players will shape a “global public forum” and in what way, Bollinger offered important insight into the development of a free speech system in the 20th-century and its potential within a growing transnational system. 

Keywords: Columbia, LSE, free press, free speech