The idea for the International Free Expression Project (IFEP) was hatched a couple of years ago when journalists, artists, bloggers and dissidents came under siege in countries such as Russia, China and Turkey.

When those who speak up against injustice are kept from reporting facts and sharing their stories, dictators control the conversation.

Journalist Greg Victor, the Sunday Forum and op-ed editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, could see that unfolding in other countries and understood the potential impact. He wanted to start an organization that would discuss this vital issue and create a space for a wide range of free expression.

He and the other organizers of this new Pittsburgh-based initiative decided to move forward with even more urgency once the American media began facing some of the same challenges as their international brethren.

The IFEP plans to open a center that is devoted to free speech and expression. Located in the former Post-Gazette pressroom on the Boulevard of the Allies in Downtown Pittsburgh, the IFEP’s Marketplace of Ideas will be a shrine to free expression and the free press. The proposed site will host events, artists and musicians, with revenues derived from rentals, food sales and other sources.

An international competition will enlist artists to create the world’s first major work of public art representing freedom of speech and the free press.

A space full of possibility: This conceptual interior rendering image by Max Winters courtesy of IFEP.

The former P-G pressroom is an ideal location: Beyond its history, it includes I-beams 40 feet overhead that can carry 50-ton loads and a rail system along the floor. Both make the space incredibly flexible for moving and displaying art installations and working with other items. The IFEP has also purchased and stored 90 tons of dismantled presses and artifacts from the building for future displays.

Victor has assembled an impressive advisory board that includes Pittsburgh natives Michael Keaton and David McCullough, The Washington Post editor Marty Baron and Belarusian investigative journalist and Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich. Thus far, the IFEP has sponsored the creation of hundreds of original artworks and photographs. As they seek collaborations with the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Warhol Museum, Carnegie Mellon University, the Land Art Generator Initiative and other organizations, their goals is to “invent a new genre of public art.”

The project could not be more timely and was unveiled at last week’s First Amendment conference.

“Since we started this project, which was a response more to what was happening in the rest of the world, this issue is coming home now,” Victor says. “The accusation of fake news is being used now to diminish and discredit real news and real truth. And that’s being done for political purposes.”

One of the many artifacts left behind at the former pressroom at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in Pittsburgh. Image by Martha Rial.

The IFEP is planning fundraisers for New York and San Francisco, but Victor is not yet sharing a timetable for the site’s official opening. And although artwork is currently on display in the space, the project’s permanent location is not yet certain.

“The Post-Gazette company has a sales agreement with a certain developer, and we’re waiting to see if that deal goes through,” says Victor. “It’s going to depend on when the company changes hands and who the new owner is.”

Victor added that it’s possible that the IFEP might have to find another site. But “I think we’re in good shape,” he told NEXTpittsburgh. “I think, at the worst, we will get part of the pressroom.”

Despite the uncertainty about some of the details of the project, Victor was glad to participate in last week’s First Amendment conference in Pittsburgh to network with attendees and start drumming up interest in the IFEP.

“Everything we enjoy about being American, the rights we enjoy, they all have to be protected,” Victor says.

If our rights are not fully understood, appreciated and protected, the existence of our Constitution does not guarantee “that our country can’t be substantially altered by popular movements in particular,” Victor says. “If people are allowed to encroach on our rights, especially to gain political power, and if enough people support them — everybody derides the Hitler analogy and I’m not making that right now, but he was democratically elected.”