Advocate Harvey Silverglate on keeping institutions
At the age of 69, Harvey Silverglate has realized he can no longer
operate nonstop. Silverglate recently confided to his research
assistant that he now needs five hours of sleep each night instead
Needing little sleep seems to be a secret of some of the very
successful. Other members of this exclusive club include President
Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton and former British
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. But Silverglate, who admits that
he works too much, doesn't credit his success to his sleep habits,
but to his work ethic, which has taken Silverglate far.
A renowned attorney for more than 50 years, he is also a revered
author and a champion for the civil rights of college students, a
cause that led him to open a non-profit that focuses on the
A KID FROM BROOKLYN
Silverglate's work ethic can be credited in large part to his
upbringing as a first-generation Jewish son in an immigrant family
from Poland and Russia. Silverglate's family lived in Brooklyn, New
York until he was 11, when they moved to New Jersey.
Even though he moved over state lines, he admits his Brooklyn
influence runs deep. "I kind of developed a New Yorker's attitude
toward the world, which is skeptical of authority and very
skeptical of authority gone mad. I consider myself a Brooklyn
Silverglate, the first in his family to attend college, originally
intended to become a doctor, as his parents aspired for him.
He entered Princeton on a full scholarship as a pre-med student.
However, his career goals soon changed after spending a summer
interning at a bank in France. During those three months abroad, he
learned he "was not as concerned with the problems that germs cause
as [much as] with the problems that people cause."
THE RELUCTANT PRACTITIONER
It was at that point he decided to go to law school, but not to
become a lawyer. Silverglate wanted to be a journalist, "a legally
sophisticated reporter," as he calls it.
Silverglate attended Harvard Law School, and there met Alan
Dershowitz, who convinced Silverglate to try working for a law
firm. Dershowitz set Silverglate up with a job at the now-defunct
Boston firm, Crane, Inker & Oteri.
Still intent on having a writing career, Silverglate didn't think
he would be at the firm very long. He just wanted some practice
experience before becoming a legal reporter. Despite his original
intentions, Silverglate ended up loving the law, and stayed with
the firm after graduation.
But his yearning to write never went away. "I had this bug still
up in my head [that] I really should be writing about legal matters
like I intended," Silverglate said. "So, I started writing columns
for The Boston Phoenix." His nearly 40-year career at the
Phoenix makes him the paper's oldest living contributing
writer, he said.
He's also one of the paper's most widely read contributors,
according to Peter Kadzis, executive editor for The Boston
Phoenix. "The response to his articles is always strong,"
Kadzis said. "Harvey's written on a broad range of public policy
issues, but the common denominator is always justice and
"I think that there's a driving force in Harvey's life, and that
is justice," Kadzis added. "I would say I've never met anyone [like
him], and his commitment to the United States Constitution is
rabbinical in its intensity."
Silverglate's writing career goes beyond local publications. His
writing can also be found in The Wall Street Journal,
The New York Times and regularly on Forbes.com.
PROJECTS AND CASES PROVED TO BE REFLECTIVE OF
He has also authored two books. The first, The Shadow
University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses,
which he co-authored with Alan Charles Kors, tackles the subject of
free speech and equality of rights on the nation's college
campuses. His second book, Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds
Target the Innocent, tells the stories of American citizens
who have been the targets of federal prosecutions even though they
believe they did nothing wrong.
Silverglate's two books reflect what many will say is his life's
work: corruption in both American higher education institutions and
His passion for freedom on American college campuses led to the
creation of the nonprofit organization, Foundation for Individual
Rights in Education, with co-author Kors.
Will Creely, attorney and director of legal and public advocacy at
FIRE, said Silverglate talks a lot about the need to change the
culture on college campuses. "What I think Harvey means by that is
to implant a sense, or reinvigorate a sense, in both students and
faculty … in a modern liberal democracy … that can be wide ranging
In the 12 years since its inception, FIRE has won hundreds of
public victories, Creely said. These victories include changing
codes on campuses and securing just results for students and
faculty who have found themselves censored, silenced and kicked off
"It's an incredible feat, frankly, that he's been defending
student rights for over 40 years now in addition to all [the] other
work he does," Creely said. "I really admire that he's a tireless
Silverglate's other big passion, criminal law, is what led him to
write his most recent book, Three Felonies a Day. He is
also a longtime member of the American Civil Liberties Union. His
involvement with the ACLU of Massachusetts includes serving as a
member of its board of directors for 30 years and two terms as its
board president in the mid-1980s.
"Harvey's really one of the heroes of the civil liberties
movement," said Carol Rose, executive director of ACLU of
Massachusetts. "He brings his brilliant legal mind together with
his analytical writing ability."
Being able to combine his experiences as a civil liberties and
constitutional law expert, and being able to write about it and
translate the principles of civil rights and civil liberties for a
lay audience to understand, is a "rare combination," Rose
"I think there's an obligation of people who work in our
institutions to keep them honest," Silverglate said about his
advocacy roles. "Who else is going to do it? The only other group
in society that's dedicated to trying to keep institutions honest
is the press. And the press often can't get into these
institutions, but lawyers can."
While Silverglate's role as a lawyer has seen him covering a
variety of cases, from selective service to students' rights to
white collar crimes, he admits that there are certain kinds he
"I'll take any criminal case," Silverglate said, "but my favorite
cases are the federal cases where I sit there and say to my client,
'What did you do that got you into this?' And the client says, 'I
don't know. I have no idea what I did wrong.'"
These are the sorts of cases he now handles at the Boston law firm
Zalkind, Rodriguez, Lunt & Duncan, where Silverglate works of
counsel. David Duncan, a partner at the firm, said he often uses
Silverglate as a sounding board when he works on student discipline
cases, an area where Silverglate's been a "groundbreaker."
"I think he's generally perceived as a brilliant strategist,"
Duncan said, "and as someone who will invariably stand up for free
speech and against authority. He looks at problems and thinks about
them in a way that most lawyers don't or can't."
Silverglate often gets calls from lawyers around the country
seeking advice. "The reason people call me is because I have taken
a very different view of federal criminal prosecutions. I suggest
there are ways to defend these cases that are
A DISTASTE FOR CONVENTIONAL APPROACHES,
Non-traditional is just one of the terms Norman Zalkind, partner
at Zalkind, Rodriguez, Lunt & Duncan, would use to describe
Silverglate. Zalkind first met Silverglate during the late 1960s in
the basement of the Suffolk Superior Court building in police
lock-up. Silverglate mistook Zalkind as a defendant arrested during
an anti-war demonstration at the Statehouse.
Despite the mix-up, Silverglate and Zalkind soon became partners,
opening up their own firm. The two handled cases such as the
Harvard University takeover and the Pentagon Papers.
"He's different from most lawyers," Zalkind said. "He's just
creative. He thinks out of the box. Sometimes the ideas go nowhere
and sometimes they go right to the heart of things."
It was at Zalkind & Silverglate's law firm where Silverglate
first met Nancy Gertner, a retired U.S. District Court judge and
now a professor at Harvard Law School. Gertner and Silverglate
eventually began their own law firm, where they practiced together
for 17 years.
Silverglate's is "a voice that is absolutely invaluable," Gertner
said. "He's someone who is
enormously creative and works really, really hard, and really will
think about the unorthodox and try to do the unorthodox."
One of Gertner's fondest memories of Silverglate occurred when he
encouraged her to take the Susan Saxe case, in which a Vietnam
anti-war demonstrator was accused of killing a police
"When people talk about mentors, I don't think that there's a way
for describing how extraordinary that push was for me," Gertner
said. "It made an enormous difference in my career. I'm not sure
that any other male lawyer at the time, then or now, would have
easily made that decision."
Silverglate is known for not shying away from controversy, and his
current views on the legal system are no different.
Working to preserve the U.S. Constitution during a "War on Terror
… is the greatest challenge of our age," he said. "To preserve a
republic in the face of the warriors who tell us [that] we cannot
afford to have free institutions in an era where other people are
looking to terrorize us … I think that's the main challenge."
PERCEPTIONS OF SILVERGLATE'S INFLUENCE, LEGACY
Silverglate, who often lectures students about campus rights,
civil liberties and criminal law, "encourages young law students to
fight to preserve what's best and what's marvelous about the
civilization that we've constructed around the rule of law and the
Constitution," he said.
Silverglate's research assistant, Daniel Schwartz, said, "To say
Harvey has been an influence on what I'm doing would be one of the
"Harvey brings a perspective to everything," said Silverglate's
intern, Stephen Henrick. "I feel like he's really committed to his
ideals, and I respect that in a lawyer."
"I'm delighted that so many of the law students I've helped train
have gone onto useful careers," said Silverglate, who keeps in
touch with many of them.
What's up next for Silverglate? The probability of a third book is
pretty high, he said, even though he "vowed" to never write another
book because of the toll it takes on his law practice.
The tentative title is Acts of God, which will focus on
cases in which prosecutors have suppressed exculpatory evidence and
"it was by the most bizarre fluke that years later the exculpatory
evidence came out and freed" the convicted, he said. "There are a
disturbing number of these cases and I decided to collect them and
write about them in order to point out how crazy our current system
is … how easy it is for prosecutors to suppress evidence and get
away with it for life."
With a lifetime full of life-changing work to look back on,
Silverglate doesn't seem to particularly care about the legal
legacy he'll leave behind one day. "I don't put my stock in that,"
he said. "I think if you live your life worrying about legacy, you
tend to be too focused on pleasing people and having people approve
of what you do."
He added: "I want my friends to remember me as a good friend and
my son to remember me as a good father, which I think I was. And if
I predecease my wife, as a good husband and friend."