Abrams Institute Conversations Series

Speaker Series on First Amendment Issues

Abrams Institute Conversations Series
Speaker Series on First Amendment Issues

The Abrams Institute for Freedom of Expression at Yale Law School launched a new speaker series in spring 2021, “Abrams Institute Conversations” on pressing concerns about free speech and the First Amendment. Moderated by Floyd Abrams, this new series is made possible by generous support from the Stanton Foundation.

Will the Supreme Court Let States Take Control of the Internet?

March 4, 2024

Floyd Abrams explores the conflicting views of two leading experts--Jack Balkin and Timothy Wu—about how the Supreme Court should resolve Moody v. NetChoice and NetChoice v. Paxton, cases raising critical questions about the power of governments to regulate content on social media platforms. These cases arise from laws enacted by Florida and Texas to limit the power of the largest social media companies to curate the speech disseminated over their platforms and to compel them to disclose a variety of information to the public. They raise fundamental First Amendment questions—the platforms object that any regulation implicating their content-moderation decisions is unconstitutional, while Florida and Texas argue that content-moderation decisions do not implicate the First Amendment at all. They are also politically charged. The two states defend their laws as necessary to rein in powerful social media websites that are not elevating conservative voices. Opponents fear a decision upholding them would give governments unprecedented powers to control what voters read, increase the risk of political violence, and subvert elections. Just days after the Court hears argument in these cases, this Conversation explores the key constitutional arguments being advanced, their implications for the future of the Internet, and the reception they received at the Supreme Court.

Jack M. Balkin is Knight Professor of Constitutional Law and the First Amendment at Yale Law School and the founder and director of Yale’s Information Society Project, an interdisciplinary center that studies law and new information technologies.

Tim Wu is the Julius Silver Professor of Law, Science and Technology at Columbia Law School.

Floyd Abrams is senior counsel at Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP and has taught courses in First Amendment law at Yale Law School, Columbia Law School and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.


Thursday, July 7, 2022

The adoption by Florida and Texas of statutes limiting social media companies from engaging in content modification policies of their choice has recently led the federal courts of appeal in two circuits to address the topic. When one of the cases reached the Supreme Court recently, it divided by a five-four vote about whether a ruling below in favor of the social media entities should be stayed. Issues raised by these cases are amongst the most significant recent ones relating to the scope of First Amendment protection in this digital era. These issues were addressed by two counsel who filed briefs in the cases taking different approaches to the proper constitutional analysis.

Jameel Jaffer is Executive Director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which defends the freedoms of speech and the press through strategic litigation, research, and public education. Jaffer previously served as deputy legal director at the ACLU, where he oversaw the organization’s work on free speech, privacy, technology, national security, and international human rights. Jaffer’s recent writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, and the Yale Law Journal Forum. He is an executive editor of Just Security, a national security blog, serves on the board of the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation, and on the advisory boards of the Press Freedom Defense Fund and the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Katie Townsend is the Deputy Executive Director and Legal Director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press where she oversees the Reporters Committee’s extensive legal services portfolio — including its litigation, vetting/pre-publication review, and amicus practices. Townsend leads the Reporters Committee’s impact litigation efforts, and regularly represents news organizations and journalists, including documentary filmmakers, in public records, court access, and legal defense matters. She recently led the successful launch of the Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative (LLI) providing legal support for local investigative and enterprise reporting in Colorado, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.


Friday, March 18, 2022

A conversation on the meaning of the press clause, what rights it uniquely conveys, and who is entitled to claim its protections. How the courts come to understand and apply the press clause in a drastically changing media environment will have far-reaching implications for everything from how journalists operate, to how they are funded and, ultimately, what the public knows. Addressing these issues has taken on an immediate urgency—and provoked great discord—as we are forced to resolve them in the specific contexts of criminal cases such as the Espionage Act prosecution of Julian Assange and the search warrants executed at the home of James O’Keefe and other Project Veritas staffers. Floyd Abrams explored with a leading scholar of the First Amendment, Sonja West, and the founding general manager of ProPublica, Richard Tofel, what is at stake and how we ought to think about these issues.

Richard Tofel was the founding general manager of ProPublica and served as its president until September 2021. In this role, he had responsibility for all of ProPublica’s non-journalism operations, including communications, legal, development, finance and budgeting, and human resources. He was formerly the assistant publisher of The Wall Street Journal and, earlier, an assistant managing editor of the paper, vice president, corporate communications for Dow Jones & Company, and an assistant general counsel of Dow Jones. He is the author of more than a dozen book, including “Not Shutting Up: A Year of Reflections on Journalism” (2020); “‘A Federal Offense of the Highest Order’: The True Story of How the Joint Chiefs Spied on Nixon, And How He Covered It Up” (2019); “Speaking Truth in Power: Lessons for Our Sorry Politics from Our Inspiring History” (2018); and “Why American Newspapers Gave Away the Future” (2012).

Sonja R. West is the Otis Brumby Distinguished Professor in First Amendment Law at the University of Georgia where she specializes in constitutional law, media law and the U.S. Supreme Court. With a B.A. in journalism and communication from the University of Iowa, West worked as a reporter in Illinois, Iowa, and Washington, D.C., before entering law school in Chicago, where she served as executive editor of The University of Chicago Law Review. She served as a judicial clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and Judge Dorothy W. Nelson of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and worked for several years worked on First Amendment and intellectual property issues as an associate at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and Davis Wright Tremaine, before entering the academy. West received the 2017 Harry W. Stonecipher Award for Distinguished Research on Media Law and Policy from the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication and the National Communication Association’s 2016 Franklyn S. Haiman Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Freedom of Expression. Her work has been published in numerous law reviews and she appears a frequent commentator for various news media outlets.


Wednesday, December 15, 2021

First Amendment and Free Speech Advocate Robert Corn-Revere has authored a compelling new history of the evolution of censorship, exploring the mindset and tactics of censors over the past two centuries and why they have largely failed. Professor Geoff Stone has described “The Mind of the Censor and the Eye of the Beholder” as an informative, insightful and wildly entertaining defense of free speech and freedom of thought. Floyd Abrams engaged Robert Corn-Revere in a wide-ranging conversation about the insights he gained in compiling this history, what it tells us about the effectiveness of free speech protections, and the most urgent issues impacting free speech today.

Robert Corn Revere is a partner in Davis Wright Tremaine and a leading First Amendment lawyer with a career spanning four decades. A former Federal Communications Commission official and a former journalist, he regularly defends media organizations and their journalists. He has argued and won key free speech cases in the Supreme Court, obtained an unprecedented posthumous New York pardon for the late comedian Lenny Bruce, and defended CBS in the Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” case.


Wednesday, August 4, 2021

The topic of freedom of speech on campus is hardly a new one but the desirability of addressing it in a serious and sophisticated manner may never have been greater than at this time. Two scholars of particular distinction in this area of law and social policy, Professor Robert Post and Professor Catherine Ross, joined Floyd Abrams in this discussion.

Robert Post is Sterling Professor of Law, Yale Law School. He served as the School's 16th dean from 2009 until 2017. Professor Post specializes in constitutional law, with a particular emphasis on the First Amendment. Among his many incisive writings, he is the author of Democracy, Expertise, Academic Freedom: A First Amendment Jurisprudence for the Modern State (2012), which was originally delivered as the Rosenthal Lectures at Northwestern University and For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom (with Matthew M. Finkin, 2009), which has become the standard reference for the meaning of academic freedom in the United States.

Catherine Ross is Lyle T. Alverson Professor of Law at the George Washington University Law School. She specializes in constitutional law (with particular emphasis on the First Amendment) and family law. Her book A Right to Lie? Presidents, Other Liars, and the First Amendment (University of Pennsylvania Press) will be released in September 2021. Her last book, Lessons in Censorship: How Schools and Courts Subvert Students' First Amendment Rights (Harvard University Press, 2015) was named the Best Book on the First Amendment by Concurring Opinions’ First Amendment News; it also won the Critics’ Choice Book Award from the American Education Studies Association.

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Tuesday, May 4, 2021

This Conversation featured issues surrounding the internet, elections and the First Amendment. Speakers discussed the consequences to a public sphere in which the Internet increasingly dominates public discourse. The panelists, with Mr. Abrams, looking at varying decision-making and content moderation policies and practices within Facebook, Google and other substantial Internet operations, debated the value and potential efficacy of regulatory efforts, internal and external.

evelyn douek is a Lecturer on Law and S.J.D. candidate at Harvard Law School, Associate Research Scholar at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, and Affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. evelyn douek is a leading scholar of content moderation and platform governance.

Noah Feldman is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law and Director of the Julis-Rabinowitz Program on Jewish and Israeli Law. Professor Feldman proposed the concept of an internal equivalent of a Supreme Court within Facebook which has been adopted by that company.

Richard L. Hasen is Chancellor’s Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine. Professor Hasen is a leading legal expert on election law.

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Monday, February 22, 2021

The second event surrounded the law of incitement and the First Amendment, which has made it to the headlines in the wake of the recent Capitol riot. Topics included partisan debates around whether former President Trump committed incitement. It also addressed the questions that were simmering long before January 6, 2021 – whether Brandenburg and the law of incitement are out of step with the reality of social media communications. The discussion focused on whether a different view of incitement might be necessary today – one that acknowledges the realities of online recruitment, motivation, organization and direction. Moreover, the panelists debated the extent to which the First Amendment compels us to tolerate an expanded understanding of incitement in the face of pressures to criminalize speech that results in violence.

Akhil Reed Amar is Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale University, where he teaches constitutional law in both Yale College and Yale Law School. Professor Amar’s work has won awards from both the American Bar Association and the Federalist Society, and he has been cited by Supreme Court justices across the spectrum in more than forty cases. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the author of more than a hundred law review articles and several books, most notably The Bill of Rights (1998), America’s Constitution (2005), America’s Unwritten Constitution (2012), and The Constitution Today (2016). His latest and most ambitious book, The Words That Made Us: America’s Constitutional Conversation, 1760-1840, is due out in May 2021.

Lyrissa Barnett Lidsky is Dean of the University of Missouri School of Law and Judge C.A. Leedy Professor of Law. Her research focuses on the intersection of tort law and the First Amendment, with a particular emphasis on free speech issues in social media. Dean Lidsky previously served in a variety of leadership roles at the University of Florida, where she held the Stephen C. O’Connell Chair in Law and received a number of teaching awards during her 23-year tenure. She is co-reporter on the Restatement of Defamation and Privacy, co-author of a leading Media Law casebook, a First Amendment casebook, and a reference book on press freedom and has published dozens of articles, including most recently the California Law Review article, Considering the Context of Online Threats.

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Thursday, January 21, 2020

The conversation covered topics around donor disclosure, anonymity and the First Amendment. In particular, it focused on whether the federal or state governments require public disclosure of large contributors to charitable entities that fund advocacy on topics of public interest. The speakers focused on whether the First Amendment prevents the compelled disclosure of donors to private, non-profit organizations and whether the same rules apply to political organizations.

Kathleen Sullivan is partner and founding chair of the national appellate practice at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, LLP. Before joining the firm in 2005, she served as Dean of Stanford Law School and taught a generation of students constitutional law as Professor of Law at Harvard and Stanford Law Schools. The first woman dean of any school at Stanford, she is also the first (and still the only) woman name partner at any AmLaw 100 firm. Widely recognized as one of the nation’s most preeminent appellate litigators, Ms. Sullivan has argued eleven times in the US Supreme Court and numerous times in the US Courts of Appeals, US district courts, and state appellate courts. She also continues to write on constitutional issues and to co-author the classic casebook Constitutional Law and its related casebook First Amendment Law.

Paul Smith is a Professor from Practice at the Georgetown Law Center and Vice President for Litigation and Strategy at the Campaign Legal Center. Until 2017 he was a partner at the firm of Jenner & Block LLP. Mr. Smith has had an active appellate practice, including 21 Supreme Court arguments, primarily involving civil rights and civil liberties issues. His important victories include Lawrence v. Texas, the landmark gay rights case, and Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Ass’n, establishing the First Amendment rights of those who produce and sell video games. He has also argued a long list of voting rights cases in the Supreme Court.