Student Press Law Center Executive Director Hadar Harris announced Wednesday that she planned to leave the organization after five years to begin a consulting firm that develops human rights-based organizational transformation. In a “personal note” posted to the SPLC website, she outlined the myriad changes the organization saw since she walked into the office in 2017:
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.
These programs have a lot of value for students and have made huge strides toward the big picture of student press freedom, for sure. However, the most important thing SPLC does, at least in my way of thinking, is during the day-in, day-out work of being there for student journalists who feel threatened and attacked for simply doing their jobs.
The sound advice and calming reassurances these legal eagles provide to students is invaluable and crucial in a time in which the press is very much under attack and people with high-priced lawyers feel emboldened to bully kids because they can. I have often referred students to SPLC with the explanation that the folks there are like “having a big friend walking with you when the school bully decides to try to steal your lunch money.”
Merely the ability to say, “I’ve contacted the Student Press Law Center and it is providing me with legal representation,” gives students confidence in their rights and gets most chuckleheads backing down quite quickly.
I could fill the internet with personal stories about how SPLC provided my students with help when someone threatened to sue our newspaper or withheld records or generally just acted like a dipstick toward us. The one I will share popped up in my Facebook memories the other day, and it literally encapsulates the value the mere existence of SPLC provides.
Seven years ago, when the Advance-Titan was in rough financial straits, a bunch of little … um… student government people decided I was to blame and tried to force me out as adviser. The newsroom kids reached out to SPLC for help and advice. The folks there wrote in on my behalf, detailing the legal issues pertaining to their kangaroo court and noting that SPLC would be watching.
At the meeting where they voted on a resolution to fire me that had about 382 “whereas” statement, the leadership was panickedly discussing behind the scenes about how a “special-interest legal group from Virginia” had somehow gotten involved. Suddenly, those little… um… people weren’t so cocksure, a reporter who covered the event told me later. They passed a resolution, but it had no effect. I stayed in place and a copy of that thing is hanging on the “First Amendment Wall” in my office.
I know dozens of other student media operations that could related reams of similar stories, which is why SPLC matters so much to us. Harris noted in her letter that the SPLC board will be working to find the next executive director between now and when she leaves in early 2023. Each time the ED position passes from one person to another, many of us in the student press community kind of hold our breath a little bit, because we know how this organization can make or break our institutions.
Each time, it seems, the organization continues to develop and grow in a positive direction that continues to serve us well.