Answering the call

Mike Hiestand reflects on 21 years with the Student Press Law Center

For someone who should never have become a lawyer, Mike Hiestand has a lot of reasons to be glad he did.

More than 15,000 of them.

Hiestand is leaving the Student Press Law Center this summer after more than 20 years answering calls for help from student journalists and advisers. He’ll still be helping people tell stories, but he’ll have the chance to take off his attorney hat for a while. By his own admission, the law was a peculiar career choice from the beginning.

“I hate reading the fine print, I hate arguing – it ruins my day when I get in an argument,” he said.

Nevertheless, Hiestand has been among the nation’s fiercest student press advocates for more than two decades. Working at the SPLC has been Hiestand’s only job since graduating from law school, putting him at the center of some of the organization’s most important cases.

“I can tell you any success I had at the SPLC and the work that we were able to do, the achievements we were able to make during my time there... were just as attributable to Mike as they were to me,” said Mark Goodman, SPLC executive director from 1985 to 2007. “He really made the SPLC work.”

The son of a career Air Force pilot, Hiestand moved around the country before finally stopping in Alaska long enough for four years of high school. He wasn’t involved with the “newspaper” there, such as it was, and remembers it only for reprinting his girlfriend’s calligraphy and some of her photographs.

It wasn’t until college at Marquette University that Hiestand had a chance to experience journalism. A broadcast major, he got his hands – and mouth – dirty on the campus radio station, spinning up everything from Peter Frampton to Donny and Marie on WMUR’s The Alaskan Pipeline.

Searching for a next step, he convinced himself to go to law school after taking a media law class in college.

“[This was] back in the day where the standard advice you got from everybody was like, ‘well law school can never hurt. It helps you think,’” Hiestand said. “It was before, you know, you had to mortgage your soul to actually go to it.”

He became a legal intern with the SPLC the following summer, just months after the Supreme Court released its decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. A year later he decided to try an internship at a corporate law firm – but hated it.

Meanwhile, the center’s requests for legal help began surging in the wake of Hazelwood. Goodman made the decision to create a year-long attorney fellowship in 1991, doubling what had long been a one-man legal staff.

Hiestand was at the top of the list, but Goodman wasn’t optimistic he’d even be interested in the job.

“Remember, we’re talking the early ‘90s here,” Goodman said. “Lawyers made a lot of money right out of law school. It would not be at all surprising for an attorney graduating from a law school like Cornell to be offered at a big law firm in a major metropolitan area like D.C., $75-, $80-, $85,000 as a starting salary.”

Instead, Hiestand jumped at the opportunity to work for a nonprofit organization with an annual budget at the time of about $100,000.

“And that paid Mark’s salary, my salary, our interns’ salary, anything else that came up,” he said. “I mean, we were non-profit – and it was awesome.”

After extending the fellowship an additional year, it became clear the SPLC could not handle all of its legal calls without Hiestand’s help. He served as the center’s staff attorney for the next 10 years.

In that time, he worked with thousands of student journalists, operating what he calls a “legal triage” for the student media. He answered the first call for help in what would later become known as the Dean v. Utica case, in which a Michigan student reporter scored one of the most significant post-Hazelwood victories for scholastic journalism.

He also helped coordinate the center’s work on two major cases involving the First Amendment rights of college journalists – cases that continue to frustrate him.

“I can’t believe, in some ways, that we are where we are today with student press law,” Hiestand said. “I never, never would have thought we would have had to take up a case like Kincaid, where a college official is locking up yearbooks in a closet because she doesn’t like the color of the yearbook cover – and having a judge say that’s OK.”

An appeals court later overturned that decision, but a subsequent case – Hosty v. Carter – once again opened the door to the possibility of censorship at the college level.

“I mean, if you don’t have free speech on a college campus in this country, where the hell are you going to have it? I mean, seriously. That we even think that is something that should be debated is just crazy to me.”

In 2003, Hiestand moved to the West Coast to be closer to family and escape the frenzy of Washington, D.C. He continued to work full-time, remotely from his home office near Bellingham, Wash., just south of the Canadian border. With the help of technology, the transition was seamless for most users of the SPLC’s attorney hotline – and despite Goodman’s initial apprehension, ended up expanding service.

“I missed Mike, I missed being able to walk next door and talk to him about something, but I also knew he was only a phone call away or an email away,” Goodman said. “Again, I think functionally, it not only didn’t hurt our work, but in some ways helped because we had that added benefit of somebody being in a time zone that allowed them to deal with things in those hours after the rest of us hopefully were not working.”

The move also put him in close contact with journalism educators in the Pacific Northwest. He has been a regular fixture at conferences in Washington State, frequently making the multi-hour drive to Seattle and beyond. He testified on several occasions before the state legislature during the state’s effort to pass student press freedom legislation.

“We’ve been so fortunate because other people around the country don’t have a Mike Hiestand just to the north, who they can call on any time they want to,” said Kathy Schrier, executive director of the Washington Journalism Education Association.

Hiestand contributed to and would become the primary author of the SPLC’s reference book, Law of the Student Press. He also built and coordinated the center’s Attorney Referral Network, connecting student journalists with local lawyers willing to work pro bono.

On one such referral, Hiestand assisted student editors at Miami University of Ohio who sued to get access to campus disciplinary records. The university claimed the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act protected the information. The students succeeded before the Ohio Supreme Court in what became a major victory for transparency on campus, and an early interpretation of FERPA.

“When I spoke or visited with him during that time, it was clear to me that this was more than a job to him,” said Jennifer Markiewicz Wagman, editor of the Miami Student at the time. “Although my path to the law had been forged before I met Mike, his support and attention made the walk down that path easier and a lot less uncertain. He gave me the self-confidence to propel through many challenging times.”

Wagman is now a writer and a lawyer herself.

One of Hiestand’s most memorable calls involved a high school student newspaper near New York City. Editors documented what they called “filthy” conditions in the school’s restrooms, which they found lacked soap and toilet paper and were overcrowded. The newspaper reported there being one working restroom for every 2,000 students at the school.

Administrators required the story changed to have a more positive tone, and the editor said they threatened to remove him from his position and put negative letters in his permanent file. The editor ultimately agreed to some changes to the story.

“It just was so stereotypical of the sort of crap that student journalists have to put up with in simply telling the truth,” Hiestand said. “It wasn’t sex, drugs and rock and roll, it was simply showing a bad situation that needed to be fixed that school officials didn’t want exposed.”

One of his earliest calls for help had a more positive ending. A high school editor near Los Angeles was told she couldn’t walk at graduation the following day because of her underground newspaper. Hiestand and his volunteer attorneys were able to reverse the school’s decision before the ceremony. About a week later, he received a letter in the mail with the student’s graduation tassel – which continues to hang proudly near his desk.

The SPLC also named Hiestand interim executive director in 2007 after Goodman left for Kent State University and the organization searched for a new leader. While Hiestand decided to keep his family on the West Coast, his leadership during the search kept the organization steady, said Rosalind Stark, who chaired the SPLC’s board of directors at the time.

“He was just great to have there, knowing that we didn’t have to worry about things falling apart while we were going through the search,” Stark said. “It was very comforting to have him with us.”

Hiestand decided in 2011 to begin phasing out of his role with SPLC to focus on a new project. Together with his brother Dan – a former SPLC intern – he’s started his own company, Houstory Publishing. The pair created the Home History Book, an archival journal for homeowners to record information, memories and photos of their homes. The company is also preparing to launch its second initiative, an online historical registry of heirlooms.

“Where do you go when you’ve gotten your dream job right out of the gate?” he said. “I guess that’s why I had to create my own new job.”

He isn’t giving up his student press law roots entirely, however. Hiestand will continue to serve as a project attorney for the SPLC, picking up occasional assignments. He plans to use his business success to continue supporting the SPLC’s mission, and hopes student media can use Houstory products as fundraisers.

“We’re really going to miss Mike,” Schrier said. “He’s just been a gem to all of us.”

Goodman said Hiestand leaves a lasting legacy in the student media community.

“Honestly, I don’t think there is any one person I could name who’s made a bigger contribution to student press freedom than Mike,” he said.

After answering 15,000 calls for help, presenting at countless conferences and making an impact on two coasts for 21 years, Hiestand wants those who follow to remember one thing: It is worth fighting for.

“The whole idea of freedom of speech being this inalienable right – it comes from some place higher than the First Amendment. The First Amendment, to me, only exists to memorialize the fact that people ought to have the right to speak freely. But the First Amendment has failed. At least it’s failed for students and for our next generation of citizens, and I hope that students realize that. We all need to realize that and we all need to wake up to the notion that something scary is going on that needs to be fixed, something not right.”

“It’s worth fighting for,” he said. “You know, I hope we don’t lose sight of that.”

— By Brian Schraum

reports, Spring 2012