When he’s not working with the Red Cross as an advisor for International Humanitarian Law, Thomas Harper (’10 Law) can be found writing about, speaking on or taking part in the legal aspects of pop culture. A massive Star Wars fan and collector, Harper is a popular writer for the website, thelegalgeeks.com, which analyzes the legal side of sci-fi, fantasy and comic book movies. Harper has written about everything from the legality of Princess Leia’s imprisonment in “A New Hope” to Ahsoka’s legal options in “The Clone Wars.”
Harper talks to Rhymes With Orange host (and Star Wars geek to a lesser extent) Billy Liggett about his love of the franchise and how he’s incorporated elements of it into his legal career.
Billy Liggett 0:10
Yeah, I’m not sure how much of that I can play before Disney comes after me. So let’s go a little more generic here. I was born in the summer of 1976 10 months later, Star Wars had movie theaters. So it’s pretty much been around my entire life became a huge part of my life in the summer of 83. With a release Return of the Jedi, I was seven at the time and I had all the toys leading up to that film, I had the Ewok village I had Jabba the Hutt’s throne room, I even sent off cereal box tops and got an emperor figure before it ever hit the stores. Fast forward to the 90s and college where I stood in line overnight with a bunch of dorks. And yes, I say that with the utmost affection, waiting for the Phantom Menace. Fast forward again to this last decade when I got to share my love of these films with my own children, taking them to first day showings of the new films and watching new shows like the Mandalorian on TV. I’m a proud Star Wars nerd and I’m absolutely okay telling you this. But why am I telling you this? That’s because my guest today has more Star Wars knowledge in his non robotic right hand that I’ve gathered in my entire 46 years on this planet. Thomas Harper is a 2010 graduate of Campbell Law School. He was part of that class that’s been its first few years and Buies Creek before the school moved to downtown Raleigh, and he was also featured in the spring 2022 edition of Campbell magazine for his work with the American Red Cross in international humanitarian law. Thomas is also a US Army veteran who served in Afghanistan before returning to his current career Roy, he now advises the military on legal ramifications of armed conflict. That is a mouthful. I didn’t write that story. But when it came time to edit it and look for photos to go along with the story, I discovered this whole other side of Thomas, he’s not only a walking encyclopedia of Star Wars knowledge, and perhaps one of the franchise’s biggest fans, he’s a national champion of Star Wars trivia. Go on YouTube, you can find it. It’s really amazing what he knows. He’s combined his love for these films with his career as a member of the legal geeks team, where he’s written several pieces about the legality of Star Wars, and the politics that are a huge part of the epic story. So that’s what we’re going to talk about over this next half hour. If you’re a Star Wars fan, you’re in for a real treat. And if you’re not, it’s still a pretty great interview. Maybe he’ll even convince you to revisit that galaxy far, far away. I’m Billy Liggett director of news and publications at Campbell University. And this … Rhymes With Orange.
Billy Liggett 2:45
I got to say I’m, I’m kind of intimidated to talk to you and it has nothing to do with your legal career. I, I’ve always been the the Star Wars fan in the room, I’ve always been the person that my friends or whatever, say, Hey, what happened so and so so and so. And you know, more often than not, I had the answer, but I’m talking to a bonafide just, you know, wealth of knowledge here. So I, I, I drew up a few questions. But then the whole time I’m thinking God, I sound like an idiot. And these questions. So apologies to begin with.
Thomas Harper 3:27
No, not at all. What is I appreciate the compliment. It’s verifiably an illness. So there are plenty of folks that are concerned for my health and well being because of that. Well,
Billy Liggett 3:42
to go from a humanitarian law meeting to this.
Thomas Harper 3:47
I hope it’s okay, Good Friday.
Billy Liggett 3:50
Okay, good. We all have our kind of origin stories of where we fell in love with these films. And I want to ask that first of you. Sticking with Star Wars. What got you into this universe?
Thomas Harper 4:01
Yeah, a bootleg VHS copy of A New Hope that my dad had recorded over. Probably some like family video, but he popped it in. Back in the day. It was like Fox had a new home. So you had to turn on your local Fox station if you wanted to watch that movie on TV. And then TBS had Empire and Jedi. Right and so he had recorded over commercials and everything. And we had one of those old school like two TVs and the gigantic wood box that was common in the 80s. We had the same TV for most of my life. And he just hit play and you know, I had been into Ninja Turtles and transformers and stuff. But the moment that Darth Vader steps on to lay a ship on that teeny little screen as grainy as that thing was it had me blocked and you know we had for years until the have, you know they sort of do in home movie releases? That’s all we had. So I would just hit rewind, watch it with the commercials and everything. And I, I probably knew about war at the tapes. And this was probably early 90s When I got introduced, and it was like a dead zone for Star Wars. There were some books coming out some novels, but that was way above my brain grade at the time. And then about 95 You had the rerelease of the toys, by Hasbro’s, the sort of reinvigoration and that that came when I was about 10 years old. And that was perfect timing.
Billy Liggett 5:40
So the prequels hit in just as at the right time for you.
Thomas Harper 5:45
So Oh, yeah, I was an eighth grader. When Phantom Menace came out so perfectly sent, George Lucas couldn’t have planned it any better.
Billy Liggett 5:53
For me, so for me, born in 76, my first theater experience was returned to the Jedi. And I recall, I got all the toys around that time, the Ewok I even sent off my cereal box tops to get an emperor figure. And that’s amazing. Yeah. Had I only never touched them and never played with them. I would have, you know, I want to say I had the original Boba Fett, it’s even that little springy rocket in the back. But same on me, I played with them.
Thomas Harper 6:30
And shame on you for playing with your choice.
Billy Liggett 6:33
So it’s been a lifelong thing for me. We’ll get into the we’ll get into you know your how you mix law of a Star Wars, but just gonna set the scene a little bit more. Nine films, main films, a couple other films, a lot of TV shows have a recent one. So what’s your favorite of Star Wars? And maybe it’s the film’s maybe it’s the recent TV shows? I’m not I’ll never ask a Star Wars fan. What they don’t like because we all have our different opinions and everybody. And none of it matters. But what do you like? What do you like about him? And what’s your favorite of the of the of what’s out there?
Thomas Harper 7:14
I really like every it’s tough to rank, I tend to look at it in terms of time. If I have, say, 30 minutes to sit down and watch a scene or a chunk of a movie, what am I most likely to go to? And it depends on the day depends on the week, but it’s a neck and neck race between empire and Return of the Jedi was my favorite as a kid. There’s just nothing like the end battle like you’ve got to dueling space and ground battle going at the same time. I’m to this day, a fleet geek I love star fighters and capital ships, all that stuff, even though I ended up joining the army and not the Navy in real life. But yeah, it was just nothing like that. You can’t beat the Battle of Hoth and all the data, the training scenes. So it’s It’s neck and neck and nostalgia is a powerful, powerful thing in your brain. And I just have such like deep connections to both those movies, just you know, Christmas Day, like playing with the toys and having those on the background or whatever, just so many memories come back to the entire original trilogy versus those particular.
Billy Liggett 8:23
Okay, we’re in this Disney era of Star Wars right now. And I will say this about this current era is I think that the TV shows that they’re making are, are just fantastic. I think they’re, they they take all these original ideas. And what television allows is for them to go a little more in depth and slow down a little bit. And I’m really enjoying all of this. What’s been your take on the last, I guess maybe five, six years of going back from the Clone Wars series, which is a little bit further back to where we are today with everything that’s coming out.
Thomas Harper 9:01
You can fully appreciate my position on this because you and I you more so than I but we both lived through large chunks of time where it was just a dead zone. There was just no Star Wars coming out maybe a little book here or there. But there was nothing you had to create your own Star Wars. If you were to go back to 1993 94 and tell like little kid me that they’re not just this new Star Wars but there’s more Star Wars then you can conceivably keep up with books and comics and those. I wouldn’t believe you I’d say I’d say you’re like a liar and a freak from the future. But I just think it’s amazing. There’s something out there for everyone. The sheer volume of material, especially if you if you venture out and you read the novels in the comics, that sort of stuff. There’s a story out there that fits every interest, and there’s a character for him. Son unlike any other time in Star Wars history is a character out there for everyone as well. It’s not just Luke, Leia Vader and Obi Wan and Lando anymore that the Galaxy very literally has gotten bigger. And so I love it the fact that we’re what, less than two weeks away from andorre A brand new show, that batch will come back in December. It’s just a little overwhelming at times, but it’s so much fun. It’s just this wave after wave of new Star Wars. And it’s a great time to be alive and be a fan I would say.
Billy Liggett 10:32
Yeah. And it’s, it’s, it’s good. It’s good stuff. It’s good television, and I think they bring in some heavy hitters to produce and direct these things, though. Yeah. So okay, so we got the background of why you love it. What got you into it? Your Campbell law graduate? What years did you attend Campbell?
Thomas Harper 10:54
So my first I chose seven to 10 minutes he doesn’t tend law school graduate. So my first two years were down in at the Buies Creek campus. The old bell tower bats and everything.
Billy Liggett 11:07
Yeah. And so your third year was after the move to Raleigh then
Thomas Harper 11:12
yeah, yeah, we still had there were still ongoing construction stuff wasn’t all fully polished up when we started but it was a it was a good move. Good density of the split my time.
Billy Liggett 11:22
So it’s interesting, because Campbell law students now only know Raleigh and right, they don’t have that Buies Creek experience. And, and it’s a unique experience it is. So you’ve got to appreciate both sides of it. You you’ve had a successful career in humanitarian law, you’re an Army vet. And I want to say, I think it’s cool that you have this successful career, but then you have this. I don’t even want to call it a hobby, because I think that belittles what you do. But it almost is like there’s two different people. And that’s my question to you is, are are there to use? Or? Or does this all mix together really nicely? Like, are you able to? I mean, are you just are you a different person? Like in this meeting you were in before? You know, before talking to me? Obviously, it wasn’t about the same subject. But are there two different use? Or is this all just part of you, I guess,
Thomas Harper 12:18
I have learned so there’s there’s one me that hasn’t always been the case. I think all of us go through these, these growing pains where we’ve got our personal and professional interest and like, what what degree do we we infuse those, but I took a lot of inspiration. I had a professor at Campbell that was really instrumental in my life. Brian Boyd, who is my first year legal writing professor and went on was a coach of mine, we’ve we became good friends. And Professor Boyd he was his authentic self was still the professor with with high standards and sort of met that Campbell mold. But he would come in and he would talk about his family, he would talk about Star Wars, he would talk about all the things that interest in him. And for me, that was one of the first times in my life, I had had that experience with a professor where i You’re you’re seeing the person in addition to the professional, but they coexisted in a way that really like amplified my experience and made it better in class. It helped me I like to think I learned more. Right, I certainly sat there and was was more engaged. And it was just really refreshing. And so after that I said, you know, I told myself that whatever I ended up doing in life legal or otherwise, I want to make sure that I don’t box up what makes me me and in my case Star Wars as silly as it may be to some people it’s a bunch of space movies. That’s that’s infused in who I am. And so you know your your to folks that are just listening to this down the line, you will see behind me but I you know, I have a picture of Boba Fett with Vader behind me …
Thomas Harper 14:09
I often will work down in the basement where I have my my full podcast setup with all my Star Wars stuff. And I don’t blur my background. I don’t do any of that stuff. And you know, more often than not, I think when I interact with folks in the professional realm, it just leads to a fun conversation and they see that I’m it helps break down barriers. And it helps make me more approachable. So I’m just a person. And I’m sure that there are one or two people out there that have had formed judgments negative or otherwise based on that, and that’s their prerogative. But for me, it’s a lot more fun to be able to bring that into my personality and I’ll try to wedge it into conversations or things where it’s not appropriate. Right, but you got to be dealing with when you deal with me I want folks to deal with, like Thomas They, and that’s part of it. So I tried to infuse that I’m lucky enough now in what I do to be able to actively infuse it in what I do and some of the instruction. But yeah, that that will be something that I will fight and go to the mat over. And that’s something that I try to impart on young professionals. You don’t have to beat people over the head with it. But it’s okay that like, You’re a big Carolina Panthers fan. And it’s okay to have a poster of the Panthers or the stadium or something like that in your office, nobody’s going to look and say, Wow, you don’t have your degrees. If you have a poster, a football poster instead, I probably want a different lawyer. If they do, if they do think that that’s probably for the best for both,
Billy Liggett 15:43
That’s what I think is really cool is you’ve you’ve managed to very uniquely merge your pet your career and your passion, with, with some of the when you write about the legality of Star Wars, and so this is where I’m gonna probably sound like an idiot. But I do think it got me to thinking you Well, yeah, of course, Star Wars, maybe more so than other fiction out there is full of legal issues and politics. You go back to the very first film, where it’s just almost a throwaway line. But I want to say it’s Tarkin, or somebody says something like, The Emperor has disbanded the Senate and, and you’re thinking, you know, it’s a throwaway line, but then the whole prequels is really based on you know, that line and a few other lines from from that movie, and it’s just, and then the prequels are all about politics. It’s all about the fall of democracy. And then I think the the last Jedi had had some really cool scenes where they blur the lines between good and evil and who funds a war and, and I think the TV shows, the Clone Wars, their thing has gone even deeper into that. So I know there are some out there that just liked the lightsabers. They just liked the chips. But I think this part of the of the universe fascinates a lot of people, and it obviously fascinates you a lot. So what is it about that part of, of this entire universe that is most intriguing to you, I guess.
Thomas Harper 17:20
It’s such a powerful teaching for us. And it goes two ways. Just as a as a franchise, because Star Wars is a kid for me helped me make sense of complicated things in the world, things that I couldn’t understand that were unfolding before my eyes, stuff like 911, and things like that, that were quite large. In my childhood. There’s often a disconnect, it’s hard to watch these images or consume some of these news stories and fully appreciate and understand what’s going on and what’s happening. But if you look at a franchise like to Star Wars, there’s so many of these lessons and and not just lessons in the incidents themselves. I mean, you know, you A New Hope revolves around like one of the single biggest crimes and tragedies that you can conceive of the destruction of an entire planet of layers entire planet, she has to watch it and then she has to find the resolve to soldier on quite literally lead the rebellion, and carry on her mission in spite of everything that’s happened to her. And it’s lessons like that, that I think, are powerful in life. They’re purposefully infused by Lucas, there’s a reason why he speaks so eloquently and so at length when he’s asked about it, about the real world inspirations it’s quite different than maybe a franchise like Lord of the Rings where you have an author like Tolkien that says My books are not allegories they are not to be read as as commentary on political events or or anything like that are a thinly veiled you know, on screen example of my personal experiences in World War One or elsewhere, George Lucas went the exact opposite route he said, Oh, no, very, this is a commentary on things like Vietnam and and the politics of the day Nixon and et cetera. So I look at something like that. And that’s a powerful force, but it’s also powerful because our experience in real life and and learning more about real life, things like the law can help you better appreciate and understand Star Wars. So when you watch A New Hope, and you you see that that scene that you’ve mentioned, or even in the very opening confrontation with beta and layup, she says, you know, this is a diplomatic ship on a consular ship on a diplomatic mission to Alderaan the Imperial Senate won’t stand still for this. And Vader immediately pushes back, declares her a traitor and a spy and sends her off. That’s a cool line. But there’s real, like legal implications to that. And so when you take a scene like that, that everybody knows nearly by heart, and you talk about, like, why is she saying that? Why, like, why is the line fit like that? Why even have an exchange like this? Well, it’s because of things like diplomatic immunity is because you know, a state flag vessel, that it’s out on the high seas, it’s operated under under the flag, and under the authority of a government has certain rights and privileges, privileges against being boarded by the enemy, that sort of thing, privileges against people being taken prisoner on that ship. So there’s a real like meaning to it. So suddenly, you understand a little bit more about the real life concept. And you can go back and watch Star Wars and see it in a little different way. And it’s like, a little bit cooler each time you watch it, so it sort of unlocks these new angles to watch it from. So for me, it’s, it’s this business of getting to constantly evolve the way I watch these movies, and it keeps it
Billy Liggett 20:58
fresh for me. Yeah, and that’s, and you could watch it 100 times as a kid and not get not pick that up. And then as an adult, you know, I’ve got I’ve been able to experience this with, with my kids who are 1310 and eight now. And so to see it through their eyes, and it’s been great. But that I think that what was so great, I guess about a new hope is it three right into the story that it took, it took no time to explain any of it, it just threw your right into it. And, and, and that’s, you know, obviously it made for him to be able to expand on it with the prequels. But I think that was kind of the the genius of the beginning of that movie, which is still my favorite part of all Star Wars. So I learned two things about you. I’ve been following you on Twitter for the past few months, I learned two things about you. You have a a odd fascination with the why wing you mentioned ships earlier. I don’t know if I completely understand it, but I’m enjoying it. And the other thing is, is you’re an extremely positive fan. And I know you don’t like everything in Star Wars and you don’t like everything you know in life. But when it comes to this, you’re an extremely positive fan, you have nothing but but upbeat, positive things to say about it. And this is coming at a time where not only fans of this, you know, this, these films, but just the new Lord of the Rings, or you know, going back to pretty much anything that comes out now. There’s this toxic fandom, that I don’t even know why they call him selves fans, but they just they want to tear it down. They want to tear down minority actors and actresses, they want to tear down these beliefs and all this and I just want to know your thoughts on that. Because it almost seems to me like you were very positive, but you’re almost purposely positive for this very reason.
Thomas Harper 23:03
I come at that from two angles. A lot of this. A lot of what you see online stems from the ability to monetize outrage and make money off of the these outrageous opinions. I think if this were just normal life, if this were us around the lunch table at school, or whatever, and somebody was, honestly, this upset over something, they just wouldn’t watch it anymore. I mean, I knew I knew kids, I had friends that they got upset over something. And they just quit the material. Like that’s the natural thing to do. I don’t want to watch this anymore. It doesn’t, it doesn’t do anything for me anymore. It’s been ruined, whatever I go off. But now you can make a paycheck, make a living, make a for some of these folks are good living, doing nothing but for stoking the same outrage. And so there’s a natural tendency amongst folks, particularly when you don’t like something, especially within a franchise that you love. You want to seek out affirmation. I think that’s a just a normal aspect of of our personalities. It happens on the positive side, too. But I know with the Star Wars material that I’ve struggled with, you know, I’ve walked out of the theater at least once thinking like that I watched the same movie that everybody else watched. I’m struggling with aspects of this. And so I go out and i What do I do I look for other folks that might have similar opinions that to just make sure that I’m not crazy. And so there’s an element of that. And I think it’s unfortunate that that they continue to get that that loud, noisy minority continues to get attention and continues to get rewarded, financially or otherwise for for doing what they’re doing. But where I come from, on it, and I think where a lot of fans come from is that Star Wars has always been a bastion of sort of safety and and call For me at at some of the toughest points in my life, when I was in elementary school middle school, getting terribly bullied Star Wars was was my retreat location. That was my green zone, right, come back. And Luke Skywalker didn’t make fun of me. Lando didn’t call me names. Like I didn’t care what what backpack I had that I brought to school. They were just authentically themselves on screen and and that was my escape. And it persisted in that way my entire life and I refuse to let this this thing that has always been a positive force and an anchor point in my life that comes something that harbors any negative negativity. And that’s even though i i don’t like also worth the same I certainly am positive about it and I will be critical about my opinion of something some aspects of it. But for me it is it is and always will be that that retreat point and I don’t want there’s enough negativity negativity out in the world, there’s enough that upsets me about certain things out in the world, that I don’t need Star Wars to be another space like that I need Star Wars to be the space where I say okay, I’ve had enough with regular life, let me go like TSA hyperspace and, and escape for a couple hours. That’s what it will always be for me. And if I can, you know, I’ve got two two daughters that are much younger than your your kids. But if I can instill that in them, whether it’s Star Wars or otherwise, like I want them to have that space as well to be able to come back to even when the seas really stormy outside of it.
Billy Liggett 26:47
That’s very well said and I had similar experiences growing up where it was kind of an escape for me and and when I when I do see something that maybe I don’t agree with whatever creative direction they went on something or going back to the prequels if if I thought the CGI was off here or there or the the dialogue was a little bit iffy, I still go back to to just watching it through that eight year old or seeing my kids watch it today. My kids love the prequels and and it’s it’s it’s really great to see it through their eyes and watch it with them because you forget all the stuff that that you could argue about or that you could critique or nitpick here and there and so yeah that’s why I when I see the bad stuff and I’ll you know why go to Twitter often when I see the bad stuff I appreciate the good stuff that’s out there so so so well Thomas we’re actually beyond the a lot of time here so i You’re on here because you know you have the Campbell connection Campbell law graduate and and and because the the story about your career in
Thomas Harper 28:01
no absolute no, thank you. This is a blast. I will talk Star Wars for any length of time at any hour of the day. So all you have to do is
Billy Liggett 28:10
wave. Thank you so much. And yeah, that’s the luck. Yeah. Thanks, guys.
Thomas Harper 28:15
Talk to you soon. I appreciate everything.