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

By Frank LoMonte

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 isHharris@splc.org, the website issplc.org, the email address splc@splc.org 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