Senior ACLU activist to head Columbia U’s new civil rights institute

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Jameel Jaffer, ACLU deputy legal director, was appointed director of Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University according to an announcement June 28. (Photo: Columbia University website)

Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, has been appointed the founding director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

His appointment follows the creation of the Institute last month. A joint effort of the Columbia and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Institute will receive $5 million from each of them in operating funds and $25 million each in endowment funds. The new Institute will work “through litigation, research and public advocacy—to preserve and expand the freedoms of expression and the press in the digital age,” a press release from Columbia said.

“We’re at a moment in our history when freedom of expression, access to information and high quality journalism have never been more important, yet are facing unprecedented challenges,” Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, is quoted saying in a press release.

Jaffer, the son of Ismaili Muslim parents of South Asian heritage who emigrated from Tanzania, first to the U.K. and then to Canada, where he was born and brought up, is a graduate of Harvard Law School where he was editor of the prestigious Law Review, Jaffer rose to prominence challenging the Obama administration numerous times on national security policies such as warrantless wiretapping and the use of drones. In 2013, speaking to students at the University of Toronto, Jaffer said, “If you had proposed 12 or 13 years ago that the United States was going to be under a Democratic president and the first African-American president, and the United States would have indefinite detention at Guantanamo, would have a statute authorizing warrantless wiretapping . . . have a targeted killing program under which the government was killing people, including American citizens, in half a dozen countries around the world without any process, you would have been thought crazy,” he said in an interview with the Toronto Star. “Now it’s the new normal. If you propose we should depart from those policies, you’re thought of as a marginal voice.”

Bollinger said Jaffer had proved himself as one of the “most effective defenders” of the First Amendment that guarantees freedom c of religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition.   Congress is prohibited, under the First Amendment, from promoting one religion over another or restricting any individual’s religious practices; restriction of the press or right to speak freely.

Since he joined the staff of the ACLU in 2002, Jaffer has litigated constitutional challenges to gag orders imposed under the USA Patriot Act, surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency, the viewpoint-based denial of visas to foreign scholars, and the sealing of judicial opinions issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. He has argued cases at all levels of the federal court system, including in the U.S. Supreme Court, and has testified before Congress about a variety of topics relating to national security and civil liberties.

Jaffer is also one of the nation’s leading Freedom of Information Act attorneys, having litigated landmark cases that resulted in the publication of crucial documents about the U.S. government’s counter-terrorism policies.

Alberto Ibargüen, president of Knight Foundation said, “Jameel Jaffer’s integrity, intellect and collaborative nature make him the right leader for a new organization. His experience at the intersection of law and technology make him the forward-looking legal strategist the Institute needs to select—and win—precedent-setting battles.”

The Knight First Amendment Institute will address among other things, electronic surveillance by government; privacy rights on digital platforms; the overall freedom of internet platforms, and the rights and responsibilities of the corporate actors who own those platforms; public access to government records, including judicial records; secrecy obligations imposed on technology companies; and the prosecution of government whistleblowers.

In his role as director of the ACLU’s Center for Democracy, Jaffer created the ACLU’s project on speech, privacy, and technology; oversaw a major expansion of the ACLU’s work on issues relating to civil liberties in the digital age; and was instrumental in the ACLU’s decision to take on the representation of whistleblower Edward Snowden.

“Columbia and Knight Foundation have made an extraordinary commitment to protecting and expanding freedom of expression and of the press in a constantly changing digital environment,” said Jaffer, adding that he was excited by the opportunity to build an organization dedicated to a mission essential to a free society.