Lee Bollinger

Robust Leadership

With his recent book on First Amendment rights in an era of globalization, Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger ’71 analyzes some of the most pressing challenges of the information age

By Peter Kiefer

Fall 2010

When it comes to the expansion of free press rights around the globe, Lee C. Bollinger ’71 does not mince words. “Censorship anywhere is censorship everywhere,” the Columbia University president and First Amendment scholar declares in his taut yet ambitious new book, Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-Open: A Free Press for a New Century (Oxford University Press: 2010).

Like the global financial crisis and issues surrounding climate change, the dissemination of information, Bollinger contends, is an international phenomenon and should be treated as such. In making the case for free press standards unfettered by national borders, and for the American system as a model, the book traces the evolution of the First Amendment and applies relevant principles to a host of contemporary challenges worldwide.

Speaking from his office in Morningside Heights, Bollinger concedes that America recently has taken a reputational hit for seeking to impose some of its positions on the world. “But,” he adds, “it would be a grave mistake to think that just because something has American roots or has evolved here that it is automatically irrelevant to the world or to be considered imperialistic.”

Bollinger, who took the reins as Columbia’s 19th president after serving as president at the University of Michigan and dean of its law school, makes it clear that the book does not attempt to provide answers to all of the questions that arise in this era of mass media overload. Instead, it looks to stoke a dialogue among journalists, policymakers, First Amendment experts, and the public at large.

His timing couldn’t be better.

When Bollinger first penned a publication on the First Amendment, 1988’s The Tolerant Society, email was barely nascent, AOL did not yet exist, and Amazon was simply a rain forest. Now, with the brave new media world as his book’s backdrop, a host of new and complicated issues predominate. Traditional media is financially under siege, and new media appears fragmented, at times belligerent, and increasingly polarized along party lines.

Amid this fast-paced, topsy-turvy world of modern mass communication, the value of fresh ideas for expanding press freedoms around the globe remains constant. A few months after the book’s January release, during a presentation to fellow Law School professors, Bollinger noted that international human rights law norms and enforcement mechanisms available to entities such as the World Trade Organization have the potential to play a larger role going forward. And the book provides a comprehensive analysis of those options, detailing how they could be used to spur free press rights on an international scale.

As for the impact of new media on journalism, Bollinger takes a nuanced position. Technology has served as a double-edged sword in his estimation: While the internet and other advances have revolutionized aspects of the field, he remains unconvinced—at least for now—that this new infrastructure can ultimately replace the more traditional means of news gathering.

“There is no scarcity of opinions, but I think there is increasingly a scarcity of good ideas and really sound, professional, independent reporting,” he says.

And so it is within this mix—one part skepticism, two parts pride in the U.S. system—that Bollinger makes his case for a new global free speech code that is not only reliant on the concept of human rights. Like it or not, he says, we are all inextricably bound to one another in a global economy, and there are practical reasons why this nation’s traditions in free speech and free press are envied—and needed—both at home and abroad.

“I do think the American system is a good one and is the result of many struggles and a lot of deep thought,” Bollinger says. “And I would not hesitate to advocate for it on an international scale.”

Peter Kiefer is a New York–based journalist who has written for The New York Times.

Photographed by Eileen Barroso