A Personal Note from SPLC Executive Director Hadar Harris

white logo saying SPLC and Student Press Law Center on a bright blue background

Dear Friends, 

I am writing to let you know that after five transformative and invigorating years, I will be stepping down as SPLC’s executive director in early 2023. 

The world has changed over the past five years – and so has SPLC. 

When I joined SPLC in Sept. 2017, there was only one full-time staffer and a small group of consultants. I walked into the windowless SPLC office and found pictures of former interns, well-worn furniture and wall-to-wall filing cabinets filled with decades of paper files (not surprising for an organization that’s been around since 1974!) I discovered that our core operating systems were a bit antiquated (we were running payroll by hand and had QuickBooks on one computer – no Cloud back-up in sight). And as everyone knew, as a long-time human rights attorney, I had a lot to learn about journalism and media law. 

I wondered what I had walked into. 

I’m sure that a lot of people were wondering what I was doing there too.

But I joined SPLC because I respected its storied history and could see the possibilities of what it could become at a time when press freedom was under attack and youth voices were being marginalized. We had done so much, for so long, with so little – but now there was so much more to do.

So we got to work. 

I am so proud of what we have accomplished together.

Over the past five years we have transformed SPLC, sharpening our mission, securing new funding, expanding our staff, creating new advocacy strategies and, most importantly, growing our organizational mindset to not only put out fires and answer questions in a crisis, but also to proactively work to shift the legal landscape to fully restore the First Amendment rights of student journalists and their advisers. 

We started with a renewed commitment to SPLC’s free legal hotline – the core of our work. We hired full time staff attorneys, first Sommer Ingram Dean and then education lawyer Jonathan Gaston-Falk, to expand the capacity of the hotline and to work with long-time senior legal counsel and heart of SPLC, Mike Hiestand. 

With new funding, we were able to create a multi-year strategy for New Voices and hired our first dedicated advocacy team, led by Advocacy and Organizing Director extraordinaire, Hillary Davis. 

We held the first national trainings and summer leadership programs for advocates to learn new skills and develop strategies. We placed students in the center of our work and now are supporting grassroots groups in nearly 20 states. And as a result of that work, we got New Voices laws across the finish line in Washington, New Jersey and Hawai’i, making 16 states with New Voices protections. 

We also launched a new initiative to be sure that where New Voices laws are adopted, that SPLC would work with students and administrators, school boards and policymakers to be sure that the law was understood and applied correctly. We recognized the need for accountability efforts (with the help of the SPLC Attorney Referral Network) and Know Your Rights outreach and training which we have launched in three pilot states so far. Truly transformational work. 

We took a crazy idea scribbled on the back of an envelope and turned it into Student Press Freedom Day, a national day of action to draw attention to the accomplishments and challenges faced by student journalists. It’s become so successful that people now complain about the tag line!

We developed new programs like the Global Press Freedom Institute with our partners at PEN America, the Student Media Law and Policy Institute with its cool Moot Court competition, and, under the leadership of Operations Manager Alexis Mason, created SPLC in the Classroom, which zooms SPLC experts into the classroom and newsroom, significantly expanding the reach of our training and resources.

And behind the scenes, we’ve professionalized SPLC’s infrastructure and operations. While it’s not the sexy part, we completely overhauled SPLC’s website and communications platforms (thanks to great work by Digital Strategist Danielle Dieterich). We’ve instituted new benefits and retirement programs for our staff (thanks to accountant Dian Matsko). We moved to a completely dispersed staffing model (hiring staff across the country) and working remotely since March 2020. And we are about to launch SPLC’s first CRM – a game changer for tracking data and trends and monitoring impact (Assistant Director Josh Moore is super excited about this!) And no, we no longer do payroll by hand. 

Lest we forget, we did all of this through the course of the pandemic which completely upended the educational system and with it, student journalists and their advisers. Just as they pivoted, we did too, providing clear guidance, support and new resources for student journalists through unprecedented times. 

All of this has only been possible because of increased support from funders and friends of SPLC like you. 

There will be time for thanks and goodbyes over the coming months, but I particularly want to recognize the incredible team we have built and the diverse skills and expertise they bring to supporting student journalists: to Jon, Hillary, Josh, Alexis, Danielle, Mike, Devin, and Dian, you are the best team! 

SPLC is in great hands. 

I’ll end with this: late last year we adopted a strategic plan which sets a clear course for the future. The strategic plan was built around the carefully articulated mission, vision and values of our organization, which remains the only one in the country solely focused on the legal rights of student journalists.

The vision statement says, “The Student Press Law Center envisions a world where all student journalists are respected, know their rights, and are protected by law to express themselves freely as full and essential members of a healthy democratic society. “

We are well on the way to achieving that vision. 

Tomorrow you will hear from Board Chair Jane McDonnell about the plans to launch a search for SPLC’s next executive director. Over the coming months I will be working with the staff and Board to ensure a smooth transition which enables SPLC to continue to go from strength to strength, focusing on our core mission of supporting, promoting and defending student journalists and their advisers. 

And as for what I will be doing next, in the coming weeks I will be launching rightsandjustice.org, a new consulting firm that will work on human rights-based organizational transformation – something I am proud to say we have modeled over the past five years at SPLC.

Thank you for your support and encouragement over the years. I look forward to staying in touch and continuing to support SPLC in the future. 

Headshot of Hadar Harris

Hadar Harris
SPLC Executive Director