Samantha Harris may not be in the headlines, but when there is controversy on campus, she is often behind-the-scenes working to protect academic freedom and free speech. These battles are not for the faint of heart.
For example, when Charles Negy, formerly a psychology professor at the University of Central Florida, tweeted out several politically incorrect thoughts about “black privilege” in academia, the student government passed a resolution that Negy be fired and #UCFFireHim began trending on Twitter.
In one of the offending tweets, Negy opined, “Black privilege is real: Besides affirm. action, special scholarships and other set asides, being shielded from legitimate criticism is a privilege. But as a group, they’re missing out on much needed feedback.”
Controversial? Sure. Maybe even outrageous? Yes, of course. Many of us who received our college degrees BCRT (Before Critical Race Theory) would have enjoyed a raucous classroom debate over the equivalent heresy of our day. But today such ideas are all too often silenced.
The university was unable to fire Negy outright, as his tweets were protected under the Constitution. So, the university pulled another trick out of its sleeve: an investigation into anything Negy had ever said in class that might have (even in retrospect) caused offense. The university invited any student who had taken a class with Negy over the course of 15 years to lodge a complaint. The investigation also took anonymous complaints.
Negy was put through a 9-hour inquisition in which he was grilled about the smallest details of things he had said in the classroom over the past 15 years. Unsurprisingly, given the pretextual nature of the investigation, he was eventually fired in January of 2021.
After 15 years at FIRE, Harris had a strong desire to move from big-picture advocacy work to the day-to-day trench warfare of representing students and faculty in campus proceedings.
To help him fight back against this unconscionable treatment, Negy hired Harris, formerly with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and now a founding partner at the firm of Allen Harris, which specializes in upholding the rights of students and faculty members.
Samantha and her law partner, Michael Thad Allen, are known for handling cases that involve free speech and due process. They have seen an upswing in the number of cases involving professors such as Negy who are punished—often following pretextual allegations of wrongdoing—after expressing opinions that transgress the current racial orthodoxy on campus. And it really is a question of ideological purity—people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds can find themselves in trouble if they don’t hold the “correct” views. (Negy, for example, is bi-racial).
“This is something that exploded into the public consciousness starting with the murder of George Floyd,” Harris tells IWF. “There began to be all this attention paid to the issue of antiracism. And of course, it’s important to understand that, when colleges and universities—and to a large extent also corporate workplaces—say antiracism, it means something very specific. They mean the philosophy of Ibram X. Kendi, not simply not being a racist. And in fact, part of the problem with this new view is that the old idea that all people should be treated equally, that people shouldn’t be judged on the basis of skin color, has almost come to be a bad word in these academic and corporate circles. Colorblindness is rejected in these circles. We started to see an increasing number of students and faculty being brought up on disciplinary charges, or finding themselves the subject of complaints, for not accepting this new dogma of antiracism that was imposed very, very quickly.”
She continues, “This is an ideology that is being pushed by the intellectual elite. It’s not something that really breaks down across racial lines. In fact, one of the most interesting, and I would say, heartening, things that I’ve seen in my practice is that people of all races and ethnicities oppose this view. I get calls from black and brown and white parents and biracial families, all of whom oppose this ideology. We’re hearing a lot about Critical Race Theory, which in a way is a bit of a misnomer. It is certainly informed by Critical Race Theory, but Critical Race Theory, and critical theory in general, is kind of a postmodern theory that has been circulating in the academy for a long time. What has happened more recently is that it has escaped the academy … We’re beginning to apply these theoretical ideas from critical theory to real life situations.”
“Before I started my private legal practice,” Harris continues, “when I was at FIRE, I used to say, ‘okay, there’s kind of an endpoint, because at some point, these students are going to graduate into the real world and they’re going to have to adapt, right?’ Unfortunately, I think what we are seeing now is just the opposite. Instead of there being an endpoint, students are now taking these ideas into their adult lives. They are now demanding absolute freedom from discomfort, absolute ideological conformity, and it’s the workplace that’s changing to accommodate them. I think there’s a real climate of fear around being seen as being on the wrong side of these issues. So, you have college administrators and human resources departments absolutely capitulating to the demands of people who want to see this ideology enforced across the board.”
It should come as no surprise that Harris has dedicated herself to the issue of free speech and the liberty movement—she is, after all, the daughter of Alan Charles Kors, who with his friend Harvey Silverglate, co-founded FIRE. “Fighting for free speech is sort of a family business,” Harris says with a laugh. Kors, who was given the 2005 National Humanities Medal by President George W. Bush, taught intellectual history of the 17th and 18th centuries at the University of Pennsylvania until his retirement several years ago. Harris grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and went on to Princeton, where she majored in politics. She studied law at Penn. Harris joined FIRE after a federal clerkship and a brief stint at a large law firm.
“I used to say, ‘okay, there’s kind of an endpoint, because these students are going to graduate into the real world and they’re going to have to adapt, right?’ I think what we are seeing now is just the opposite.”
FIRE was founded in 1999, and, by the time Harris joined the nonprofit in 2005, her father had transitioned out of a day-to-day role at the organization. But Kors was definitely a key intellectual influence for her. “I always feel like I have to say the apple didn’t fall far from the tree,” she says.
After 15 years at FIRE, Harris had a strong desire to move from big-picture advocacy work to the day-to-day trench warfare of representing students and faculty in both the campus proceedings that so often threaten their basic rights and in the litigation that often ensues when things go awry.
Samantha and her partner, Mike Allen—who met several years ago at a conference for lawyers involved in campus disciplinary work—founded Allen Harris to champion the rights of students and faculty members who need topflight lawyers to fight for them. While Harris handles many cases involving students accused of Title IX violations and facing frequently unfair campus tribunals, the majority of Harris’ clients right now are faculty. “What’s really distressing,” she says, “is that they’re predominantly faculty who find themselves in trouble for their classroom pedagogy, for teaching things in a way that somehow does not align with the sensitivities of the students. This crosses generational lines and breaks down along generational lines more than along political lines. Which is to say that my faculty clients are all over the political spectrum, but they are people who are accustomed to a certain degree of academic freedom and the idea that the university is kind of a place where all ideas can be freely explored and discussed. They are finding that that’s really not the case anymore.”
“I do also represent students in student conduct proceedings, both related to these racial issues and related to Title IX issues, which I don’t want to downplay because Title IX is still important, particularly with the Biden administration’s sending very clear signals that it’s going to be ramping back up into the Title IX arena. I don’t think we can overlook that. But then there are indeed an increasing number of parents and parent groups who are seeing the way that what I will call the hyper race-conscious philosophy is quickly becoming very politicized. And I think there are people, unfortunately on both sides, who are capitalizing on this issue to score political points. It is crucial that this remain a nonpartisan issue.”
“I think a lot of faculty members are absolutely stifled,” Harris says, “and even many, if not most of the faculty who might agree ideologically with a lot of the ideas now in vogue, recognize that these issues have become impossible to discuss in the classroom with any nuance. In some ways, this is a very puritanical revolution that’s eating its own very quickly. It goes beyond the particular issues that are being discussed at any given time—it’s really a question of how free do we believe that people should be to discuss things that other people might disagree with vigorously? And my sense is that many, many faculty members across the political spectrum now feel that it is extraordinarily difficult to discuss virtually any remotely controversial subject in class and that they feel very hemmed in by the current climate in which administrations will not back the rights of faculty in the face of student complaints. There’s a terrible chilling effect, right? If every time you say something that runs afoul of another person’s sensitivity, you have to go through interviews and hire an attorney to look out for your rights, you’re not going to do it again. Unless you’re an extraordinarily brave person, which some of these faculty are, but for a lot of people, having that experience once is going to be enough to deter them from saying anything remotely controversial in the future.”
Those who run into the big chill on campus are lucky to have somebody like Samantha Harris ready to fight for their rights.