September 2017 Podcast: Outgoing Executive Director Frank LoMonte introduces his successor, Hadar Harris

Frank LoMonte: Hi everyone, and welcome to another monthly installment of the Student Press Law Center’s podcast. The Student Press Law Center is a nonprofit advocate for the rights of young people working in journalism around the country and we help students everywhere get access to the information they need to tell compelling stories and share them across all media. I’m Frank LoMonte and for the last time I get to come to you after nine years of these podcasts as the director of the Student Press Law Center because it is my distinct honor and pleasure to be passing on the baton to a really, really amply qualified successor, one that we’re really incredibly excited about: Hadar Harris, who is joining me today to talk about her plans as the new executive director of the Student Press Law Center. I’m gonna introduce her a little bit but then I’ll turn the mic over to her to tell you more about her background and more about her plans.

Hadar Harris comes to the Student Press Law Center from her work as the executive director of the Northern California Innocence Project at the Santa Clara University School of Law. Prior to that she ran the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at American University’s Washington College of Law. It is really hard in a short time to capture the amount of work that she has done on the international human rights scene. Hadar Harris is by far the best prepared, best qualified, best credentialed person ever to lead the Student Press Law Center at a time of enormous change and enormous opportunity in the field. She comes to us with degrees both from Brown University and the UCLA School of Law. She has worked as an educator, as an activist, as an advocate at the highest levels of public policy including for the US House of Representatives. She’s worked on the international as well as the domestic scene. We’re just absolutely thrilled and overjoyed to have her as the Executive Director, and with that, thank you for joining us Hadar Harris.

Hadar Harris: Frank, thank you so much, both for all the service that you have done to build SPLC to the organization it is, and to do these podcasts, which you’ve been doing for such a long time. I’m thrilled to be here, I’m thrilled to be talking to you, and I’m a little bit worried about following in your very big footsteps!

F: Not at all! Let’s give the folks a little more background on the work that you’ve done and what brings you here. You’ve spent most of your life working in the field of human rights law. What has motivated and driven you to do that kind of legal work?

H: So in terms of what motivates me to do the work that I do, I’m motivated by the fact that we see injustice in the world every day and everywhere we look and if we open our eyes to it we can be motivated by the idea that we can fix it. Openness and transparency and expression are fundamental human rights, they’re also integrated with each other. We can’t do other kinds of advocacy to change the world without being able to expose issues that are difficult. So when I think about what motivates me to do human rights issues I also think about it through the frame of the work SPLC does and the fact that SPLC works to open up the eyes and create an atmosphere of transparency and accountability and expression. So I’m very excited to bring kind of the work and the background and the framework of human rights to the work that the SPLC has done on a domestic level to integrate both domestic law and a human rights frame around freedom of expression, freedom of association and the right to information as we move ahead.

F: Well given that background and given that history of working at the international level with human rights, what will it be to you at this time in your career and this point in history to make this pivot and join the Student Press Law Center. What attracted you to this particular opportunity?

H: What’s interesting about it, and I kind of stopped for a second in talking about this fundamental precept of all human beings being created free and equal in dignity and rights. So when I teach, and I do trainings, I often talk to people about what’s the most important human right? What’s the most important thing? And it’s interesting to see where people come down. Sometimes they talk about right to life, sometimes they talk about the right to a healthy environment, because you need to breathe air and you need to drink water, but more and more often it’s around freedom of expression and freedom of association. So what drew me to SPLC and what drew me to this sort of work is both the mission and the potential of this moment.

I have been a student leader and I have worked with students for my entire career and I know that students are at the front line. I also know that students have the best new ideas and energy and enthusiasm to make real change. So when I think about where we are today as a society in the United States, where we’re talking about threats to press freedom and talking about freedom of expression on campus and free speech and the way that media is playing itself out and the way that media is changing and the way that we communicate with each other. I want to support the work of student journalists. I want to think broadly about how that work relates to how we engage as a society — civil engagement, civil society. I want to be able to work together with some of the best and the brightest and the most committed students and staff and board members, and I know that that’s what we have at the SPLC and I’m really looking forward to diving in deep with a great crew.

F: Well you’ve worked in some really challenging environments in some countries where people are facing literally life and death challenges and where human rights law can sometimes be a life saver and the difference between life and death. I’m wondering how you see the challenges that students and educators and journalists in this country and at this time in our history and maybe if there’s anything in your background and your experience that you liken it to or compare it to.

H: Well I hope that I don’t have to compare it to some of the worst places in terms of places like Azerbaijan where journalists are being rounded up and put in jail and tortured. I don’t think we’re at that level, and I hope that we never will get to that level, but this is a critical moment when we think about journalism and independent media and the ways in which our country and media consumers are really understanding what truth is and what good, concrete journalism is all about. I think that journalists right now are facing an almost existential threat to their independence, their credibility and we’re in this crazy destabilizing era of people asking “what is truth?” Facing accusations of fake news and the understanding of having a credible, engaged, critical community of journalists is really kind of under attack.

At the same time we have all of these well publicized issues around free speech on campus, debates around censorship and critical inquiry and student journalists are really on the front line of all of this. A lot of those issues aren’t new, but the context that we’re operating in feels new. So one thing that I know is that through good strategy, great legal work, collaboration among key stakeholders, various attorneys, educators, student journalists working together we can find new solutions at this moment and find new strategies that can help preserve this space for student journalists to do their work to be more deeply engaged as folks who speak truth to power and who hold people in power accountable, who may find interesting stories that need to be exposed and who engage as core members of civil society to create the robust debates that need to happen not just on campus but in our communities as a whole. There are many strategies for how you confront the worst types of censorship or the lack of access to information and there are a lot of strategies that SPLC has helped to forge and to promulgate and to promote, and there’s a lot more strategies that we’re going to have to create and that we’re going to have to contextualize and that we’ll have to move forward in the coming days. So I’m looking forward to kind of bridging my experiences on a global level with ones we’ve learned and applied here in the United States. Matter of fact some of the work that I’ve done in the past ten or 12 years has really focused on really creating and growing a movement for human rights in the United States. So we’ve talked a lot about my background as a human rights attorney, but my work as a human rights attorney very much applies to broad issues that SPLC deals with and the range of civil and human rights issues that exist here in the United States. It’s not just something that goes on overseas, it’s work that is done here in the United States and that we have to pay more and more attention to all the time.

F: One of the challenges of any nonprofit organization, and particularly one like the SPLC that is sort of small and dependent on donor funding, is that the enormity of the mission can engulf the size of the staff and the size of the financial support. So with that in mind, where do you see the role of the SPLC? Where do you see us fitting into the universe of comparable organizations, and do you have any particular thoughts — understanding that you’re brand new in this job — about direction in general or about new emphases, new priorities that you might bring to the organization?

H: I think it’s really important as the new executive director, coming in to an organization with an established track record that we honor and that we value and that we stay true to the core of what the organization is. So for more than 40 years, SPLC’s work to defend the rights of student journalists, to work with their advisers, to work with the publications, to obtain information, to publish articles and opinion pieces, to exercise First Amendment rights as critical members — critical meaning important, but maybe sometimes also critical — members of their community, both the school community and the community at large. It’s been described to me by a number of people, the SPLC’s work has been like being the fire department: putting out fires as they erupt. Maybe right now we have to think about being more like being the cavalry. (Although I reserve the right to change that metaphor as I get more deeply into the job.) And maybe taking more of a proactive role in helping to define the debates.

One of the things that the New Voices initiative has been able to do in working on supporting legislative changes state by state to ensure that students have the right to publish and have information and do the work they need to do, is to do that, take a more proactive role. As you know, because you’ve been working in this field for so long, critical inquiry and exacting journalism by students and by young people is such an important part of encouraging civil engagement and a robust civil society, it’s really what I talk about with promoting freedoms of expression and association. And at this moment, when those fundamental rights are under assault, I hope to be working with SPLC with our students, with our board, with our staff, to expand the frame and the focus and the mandate and most specifically, the impact of this small but mighty organization.

I think sometimes we think too much about being a small organization. I actually think this organization has tremendous impact and tremendous potential to reach even more broadly in the work that we do inside of this larger frame of civic engagement and support for journalism at all levels, the student level being the first line, but where our students go after they graduate from high school and college is really important and the fundamentals that they get around learning to be good journalists, learning to be engaged civic actors is critically important to how they operate within the country later. So I see such potential for the work of this organization. One of the great things that you’ve established in this past couple of years is the Active Voices fellowship program to cultivate and mentor young female journalists from around the country. They are cohorts of new and emerging journalists who have tremendous power and potential and I look forward to working with them and expanding that program and seeing where they can go with their ideas to affect the whole scope of First Amendment and freedom of expression issues that we’ve been dealing with for so long at SPLC.

F: One of the many wonderful amazing things about this organization is the ownership that people feel in it. There are so many teachers, students, alumni, people who’ve come through the doors of SPLC as interns or as law students, who really feel like it’s their organization. And for those people out there, how can they be helping you? How can they best be of service to you as the new director and to this organization as it meets the challenges that you’ve been outlining?

H: Well first and foremost, I want to hear from them — to hear about their ideas, hear the things that SPLC has been most valuable to them in helping them with, in helping them think through, in helping them to understand. Their ideas about ways in which SPLC can have an even greater impact on the issues that they’re facing today. You know, I see these first six to 12 months as a real period of learning for me. There’s a period of doing, because there’s already a lot in process and there’s a lot for us to continue to do, but I look forward to being out and about meeting people, both in person and virtually, the power of Skype and the power of Google Hangouts is tremendous in being able to make connections with people all across the country and to learn from them, and to have conversations about what SPLC has done, what we could be doing, what needs exist that haven’t yet been filled, what we might be able to do to expand the reach of our organization to raise its profile beyond those who already know what we do and become even more indispensable in the fight against censorship, the fight for freedom of information, the right to information, freedom of expression, access to resources and that kind of robust civic engagement that student journalism really encompasses. So we have a lot of work to do.

Of course the other thing that people can do is to actually donate or to open doors to us to help spread the word about the great resources that we have and to use them. One of the things that I’ve looked at carefully is the SPLC’s website and there’s so much great information there. I think it’s a credit to you, Frank, and to the staff and board members and volunteer attorneys who have worked so hard in creating tremendous content on the website. And so we hope that people will use those resources and help us to build our network of alumni, supporters, donors so that we can make sure we have the greatest impact possible at a time where an organization like SPLC becomes more critically important. So we have a long history, but we have a long way to go. And what’s great is to know that we’re poised to be able to jump into whatever is ahead in the years to come because of the great work that you’ve done, Frank, that your predecessors have done and the great students and staff and board and volunteer attorneys have done over time. I’m really excited about this opportunity. I think it’s going to be a great ride.

F: Well we are too, we couldn’t be more thrilled to have someone of your stature, of your depth of experience, of your knowledge and commitment at this time in SPLC’s history. I really think that the organization is poised to take off to a new plateau, a new level that we haven’t ever seen before and I think that will be a tribute to the leadership that you’re bringing to this position.

So we’ve been talking with Hadar Harris. Hadar is the new executive director at the Student Press Law Center, and someone that I couldn’t be more thrilled to pass the baton to after my nine years. Just in closing, I’m going to take a point in executive privilege, my last point of executive privilege just to say a thank you to everyone who has been of service to the Student Press Law Center during my nine years with the organization. We’ve had some unbelievable staff members, interns, board members, volunteer attorneys, a community of people who’ve worked generously, selflessly to keep this organization vibrant and growing and thriving. It’s really a testament to the power of the belief that people have in the ideals that the SPLC stands for — the freedom of student expression, the openness and transparency of our educational institutions and the ability of young people to have a meaningful voice in making real, positive social change on the issues that they care about. I think all of those things are poised to make advances in this challenging and sometimes discouraging political climate that we find ourselves in because it’s just too important and it’s just too urgent to allow those freedoms and those rights to go backward and I think there’s a growing national consensus that’s exemplified by the success of the New Voices movement, that we can’t go back. Human rights don’t go that way, they go from worse to better, and that it’s time that young people joined the family of full, participating citizens in a democracy.

With that, I want to say it has been a great personal honor and privilege to be of service to this community of the very best students and very best teachers in the world. As an attorney, there’s no greater privilege than for people to put their lives into your hands and into your trust and to say “tell me what to do” and I’ve tried to honor that work every day with the SPLC and I’ll continue to do so in a new role at the Brechner Center at the University of Florida where I invite everybody to connect with me. But in the meantime, please join me in thanking and welcoming Hadar Harris to the family as the new inspirational leader of the Student Press Law Center and thank you so much today for joining us Hadar.

H: And Frank, you’re not off the hook. You may be having a different title, but you will definitely be part of this family and we will definitely be calling on you for all different kinds of things. So don’t think this is your last podcast, my friend. I think that we’ll be hearing from you again. Thank you, Frank.

F: Well, with that we thank all of you for listening to the Student Press Law Center’s monthly podcast and invite you to connect with us with any question about your legal rights or any advice for our new Executive Director. There are many ways to reach us. Hadar’s email, the website, the email address will always work. You can tweet at us @splc or connect with us by phone (202) 785 – 5450.

Thank you so much for listening. Thank you Hadar and thank you everyone in the greater SPLC family for making these nine years the adventure of a lifetime.

To read the press release announcing Hadar Harris as the executive director click here