In four years, Halvorssen earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in history and political science, graduating magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. On Ivy Day, then-President Judith Rodin CW’66 Hon’04 (whose administration had supported The Red & Blue’s position in the SAC funding matter on free-speech grounds) presented him with the Sol Feinstone Award for Protecting Student Speech.

(Not that it was all politics all the time for Halvorssen at Penn: Another DP article from 1994 describes the introductory meeting of the Penn Cigar Club, including several quotes from “Club President and College sophomore Thor Halvorssen.”)

Halvorssen’s first post-graduation job, on Wall Street, lasted exactly three days. “I realized … that this was not what I want to do with my life,” he says. Halvorssen recalls that the idea for FIRE, which would defend civil liberties at universities, developed over a bottle of wine with Dr. Alan Charles Kors, now the George H. Walker Endowed Term Professor of History at Penn and the co-author, with Harvey A. Silverglate, of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (1998).

As FIRE’s executive director, Halvorssen lived in Washington Square—“my commute was 60 seconds”—and used to pass the square’s Revolutionary War Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on the way to the office. Behind the statue of George Washington, he says, was an inscription reading: “Freedom is a light for which many men have died in darkness,” reminding him daily of the struggle waged “against tyranny, so that we could be free.”

Now, he says, “I have the extraordinary luxury of fighting for freedom in a country where you’re not going to get arrested or taken away in the middle of the night for standing up for human freedom. And that’s really remarkable. People say, ‘Faculty members who do this are so courageous, or students.’ No, no, students in Tiananmen Square—they’re courageous. Students in Venezuela marching against Chávez—they’re courageous. Students in Cuba are courageous … Standing up and fighting for freedom in the United States does not take courage. What surprises me is that more people aren’t doing it.”

Over time, Halvorssen came to see “defending [college] students’ rights while there were people in Venezuela being shot for disagreeing with the government” as “a little absurd.” One of those people was his own mother, whose shooting at a 2004 protest rally he watched, horrified, on television. “She was wounded by a high-powered handgun with hollow-tipped bullets and was told she would never be able to walk again,” says Halvorssen—a forecast that happily proved inaccurate. The protesters had been requesting that former U.S. President Jimmy Carter stay in Venezuela to monitor election results in the wake of fraud allegations. “When one of the people you love the most in the whole world is hit by an assassin’s bullet, it’s a strong reminder why it’s so important to fight for individual rights. My mother was lucky—she survived,” Halvorssen says. “The woman next to her left several orphaned children.” 

Existing human-rights organizations, he says, seemed to be “much more obsessed with the United States than with countries where human rights are basically going down the drain.” The Human Rights Foundation was launched in 2006 with Halvorssen as president and Elie Wiesel as one of its board members.

“In that time,” says Halvorssen, “we’ve established an office in Bolivia, an on-the-ground undercover mission in Cuba.” The mission involves smuggling in educational and humanitarian supplies—books, movies, and medicine. “We’ve written guides on human rights. We’ve done a movie on slavery in the Dominican Republic—pretty powerful stuff. We’ve defended individuals in Bolivia and Venezuela. We got a guy released from prison in Bolivia. We’ve established campus chapters—we’ve been busy.”

On Christmas Eve, the HRF helped secure the release of a Venezuelan political prisoner, Francisco Usón, a retired army general and former cabinet minister who had been jailed for what the foundation said was “a statement showing concern for human rights.” Then, about two weeks later, came the shooting of Fernandez—evidence, Halvorssen says bluntly, of “the high price of crossing Hugo Chávez and the Venezuelan government.” In December, Chávez lost a referendum in which he sought to become president for life, but Halvorssen notes that “to this day, there is no vote tally.”

Another recent HRF project is The Sugar Babies, a documentary written, directed, and produced by Amy Serrano. It details the collusion of sugar planters and the Dominican government in trafficking Haitian sugarcane workers and the desperate poverty in which the workers live. The film, which has been the subject of protests and alleged bribery attempts by the Dominican government, is being shown at film festivals, and Serrano says that she is “very grateful” for the Human Rights Foundation’s financial support.

Even as he was getting the foundation off the ground, Halvorssen was creating the Moving Picture Institute because “I didn’t want someone else to build MPI before I did.” While he has no official position at the institute, he has been a producer on several MPI films. Hammer & Tickle uses animation to detail the history of humor under Communism. The Singing Revolution is a moving depiction of how music helped the Estonians launch their democratic revolution, while Freedom’s Fury (whose producers also include Quentin Tarantino and Lucy Liu) focuses on the bloody Olympic battle between the Soviet and Hungarian water polo teams after the failed Hungarian Revolution,

For Indoctrinate U, Halvorssen matched Maloney with an editor, Chandler Tuttle, who added professional polish. “He’s the guy who understood not only what we were looking for, but knew exactly the right person to provide it,” Maloney says. And MPI has been instrumental in promoting the film, the director adds. A website (www.indoctrinate-u.com) invites potential viewers to vote for a screening in their city of choice.

Halvorssen spent much of the fall overseeing a short narrative film, Harrison Bergeron, based on a Kurt Vonnegut story and directed by Tuttle —his toughest project yet, he says. “It’s about a future in which if you are good at anything, you have to be handicapped,” he explains. Only Harrison Bergeron—“a true Adonis, a genius”—resists and “delivers a speech about excellence and achievement, and most importantly about individualism.” The story attracted him with its tale of “the danger posed by a rogue state, and the willingness that heroes have to die for what they believe in.”  

While the privately funded Human Rights Foundation and MPI are separate entities, Halvorssen is their point of convergence. So it’s not surprising that the foundation is spiriting into Cuba anti-Communist MPI movies, dubbed in Spanish, along with such classic and contemporary films as Animal Farm, Ninotchka, The Lives of Others, Braveheart, Before Night Falls, and even Woody Allen’s comedy, Bananas—all “movies that inspire people about human freedom.” Along with the DVDs, says Halvorssen, “we are smuggling in DVD players, and we’re setting up underground film clubs to watch the films.”

Later this year, Halvorssen says, the Human Rights Foundation, with the support of the John Templeton Foundation, is planning a conference in Oslo, Norway, involving “all of the main political prisoners that are still alive that have reached legendary status”—such figures as Wiesel and Nelson Mandela. The goal is to formulate a definition of human rights, he says, and also “to discuss the nobility of the human spirit.”

“I think you need to live your life as if you were a free person,” Halvorssen says. “You don’t have a say in what historical moment you are born into, but you do determine how you’ll respond to that historical moment. My father’s an inspiration, my mother, my grandfather. My first cousin was the mayor of Caracas, who has suffered eight assassination attempts. This has been going on in generations of my family.”

By now, we’ve finished the truffled risotto, the lobster, the exquisite bass fillets and chicken and our different chocolate desserts. To our horror, the waiter wheels out a cart loaded with chocolate truffles, meringues, and other candies, clearly too much of a good thing. We fill our plates.

After Penn, “I was expecting to go back home,” Halvorssen says. “Things didn’t turn out that way. I fell in love with the American experiment. I love, love, love this country: what it means and what it represents. It has flaws. The remarkable thing about this country is that it recognizes its flaws. This country is a beacon. This is not some racist, sexist nation. There’s a reason why people get into leaky boats and come here, and not the other way around.”


Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, writes for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Mother Jones, Chronicle of Higher Education, and other publications.

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