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Faces of Liberty: Roberta Harding

Roberta Harding with her dog

Professor Roberta Harding, Judge William T. Lafferty Professor of Law, was recently profiled by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Kentucky as one of their “Faces of Liberty.” To mark their 60th anniversary, each week through December 2015, the ACLU of Kentucky will feature a member, client, case, board or staff member who has been “an integral part” of the organization’s rich history.

The following article has been reprinted with permission from the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky.



“In our work to ensure constitutional rights, there will be plenty of obstacles…just stay the course. People will call you names, they’ll harasses you, threaten you. Keep on being polite and stay the course.” –Roberta Harding 

Before Roberta Harding was a professor of law at the University of Kentucky, before she was a member of the ACLU of Kentucky’s board, before she was active with the ACLU-KY central Kentucky chapter, before she advocated against South African apartheid as an undergraduate student…she spent her childhood tagging along with her parents as they did civil and political work independently and with various organizations. 

She has vivid memories of sitting in the backseat of her parents’ car in the 1960’s as they drove her through Harlem to teach her a lesson about her privilege. “You need to understand not everyone is as fortunate as you are. They are still human beings that are entitled to respect. They are no different than you are,” she recalls them saying during the drive. 

The lessons of Professor Harding’s childhood became the foundation for her lifelong pursuit of social justice. While there are many highlights in her years of work for national and international human rights, she points to her work in 1997 with the ACLU-KY on a case about the constitutionality of the death penalty as a special moment. 

Professor Harding worked with ACLU-KY General Counsel and a group of interns drafting a petition with the courts on behalf of Harold McQueen who was sentenced to die by electrocution on July 1st of that year. The federal district court granted an evidentiary hearing to decide their contention that electrocution didn’t pass the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against inflicting cruel and unusual punishments. The Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, however, reversed the ruling. 

While Mr. McQueen was executed, Professor Harding recalls some positive outcomes of the experience. The case brought international attention to the death penalty in the United States, prompting the Italian government to pass a resolution condemning Kentucky’s actions. The students that worked on the project learned a great deal. “I was moved by how committed everyone was to the process. The students and the ACLU showed so much compassion and selflessness.” 

Despite a heavy teaching and research load, Professor Harding still makes time to give back by continuing her 8th Amendment work, and volunteering in animal rescue efforts in the commonwealth. She is pictured here with her late rescue dog Monty.

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