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Syracuse Social Scientist Leads NSF Study of Global Free Speech

Thomas Keck to lead a large-scale effort to identify, locate, and gather data on a compendium of cases that help to establish precedent in the arena of free expression

Oct 22, 2015 — Article by: Scott Barrett

Thomas Keck headshot

Thomas Keck

Thomas M. Keck, Michael O. Sawyer Chair of Constitutional Law and Politics at the Maxwell School, will spend the next three years studying who benefits from court decisions enforcing constitutional free speech norms around the globe. Over the summer, Keck was awarded a grant of more than $400,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to lead a large-scale effort to identify, locate and gather data on a compendium of cases that help to establish precedent in the arena of free expression.

Free speech is enshrined in the founding documents of more than 180 countries around the world, says Keck, a leading authority on the U.S. Supreme Court and its impacts on social change and policy. However, he adds, law scholars are divided over whether courts tend to defend the free speech rights of minority groups or if they bolster the existing powerful majorities. Through the NSF's Division of Social and Economic Sciences, Keck’s project—titled “Comparative Free Speech Jurisprudence”—will assemble a documentary data collection of relevant court cases that will be useful to future scholars, courts and policymakers working on the issue of free speech for many years to come. Keck asserts that it will also serve to test existing theories regarding the political impact of judicial power on a broader scale.

The project will eventually encompass decisions from more than two dozen national high courts, including several that have not been widely studied in the U.S., including the supreme courts of Norway and Costa Rica. Co-investigators on this project include Erik Bleich of Middlebury College; Richard Price of Weber State University; and Stephan Stohler of the University at Albany’s Rockefeller College for Public Affairs. Because the research will include analysis of thousands of court cases in more than 15 different languages, it requires collaboration across linguistic and cultural divides. Additional collaborators on the project, Keck says, represent the University of Central Florida, Willamette University, Seoul National University, the University of Windsor, the University of Melbourne, VU-Amsterdam, the University of Göttingen and the University of Oslo.

To date, the project has employed two Ph.D. students, one M.A. student and seven undergraduate students at the Maxwell School. With NSF funding in hand, the team will soon include student research assistants at several of the collaborating institutions as well.

The results of this project will help to illuminate the real-world impact of how law and democratic constitutionalism affect freedom of expression on a worldwide scale. “This project would not be possible—at least not in anything resembling its current form—without the support of funders like NSF,” Keck says. “No existing academic department in the U.S. has the necessary expertise to do this on its own, but NSF funding enables a multi-site collaborative effort.” The grant is expected to run through July 2018.

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Scott Barrett