The Silha Center was established in 1984 with a grant from Otto Silha and his wife, Helen.  Otto Silha had been president and publisher of The Minneapolis Star and The Minneapolis Tribune. He later was chairman of the Board of Directors of the company, renamed Cowles Media Company, from 1979 until his retirement from the Board in 1984. The Silha Center's primary function is to conduct research in areas where legal and ethical issues converge and to monitor changes in law or in journalistic practice that may result. The Center mounts an endowed annual public lecture and also sponsors forums on a variety of topics. Digital privacy, national security, confidential sources, ethical issues in sports and political reporting, and the law and ethics affecting film restoration are among topics covered in recent years.

The Center funds graduate student research; publishes the Bulletin, a thrice-yearly media law and ethics newsletter; and cosponsors Media Ethics, a national newsletter published at Emerson College.  In 2003, the Silha Center authored an amicus brief in National Archives and Records Administration v. Favish, an important Freedom of Information Act case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Silha Center also provides information and comment to scholars and media professionals, both nationally and internationally. It offers audio and video copies of the annual lectures, media law and ethics bibliographies, and a number of publications from the now-defunct National News Council.