For someone who should never have become a lawyer, MikeHiestand 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 summerafter more than 20 years answering calls for help from student journalists andadvisers. He’ll still be helping people tell stories, but he’ll have the chanceto take off his attorney hat for a while. By his own admission, the law was apeculiar career choice from the beginning.
“I hate reading the fine print, I hate arguing – it ruins myday when I get in an argument,” he said.
Nevertheless, Hiestand has been among the nation’s fierceststudent press advocates for more than two decades. Working at the SPLC has beenHiestand’s only job since graduating from law school, putting him at the centerof some of the organization’s most important cases.
“I can tell you any success I had at the SPLC and the workthat we were able to do, the achievements we were able to make during my timethere… were just as attributable to Mike as they were to me,” said MarkGoodman, SPLC executive director from 1985 to 2007. “He really made the SPLCwork.”
The son of a career Air Force pilot, Hiestand moved aroundthe country before finally stopping in Alaska long enough for four years ofhigh school. He wasn’t involved with the “newspaper” there, such as it was, andremembers it only for reprinting his girlfriend’s calligraphy and some of herphotographs.
It wasn’t until college at Marquette University thatHiestand had a chance to experience journalism. A broadcast major, he got hishands – and mouth – dirty on the campus radio station, spinning up everythingfrom Peter Frampton to Donny and Marie on WMUR’s The Alaskan Pipeline.
Searching for a next step, he convinced himself to go to lawschool after taking a media law class in college.
“[This was] back in the day where the standard advice yougot from everybody was like, ‘well law school can never hurt. It helps youthink,’” Hiestand said. “It was before, you know, you had to mortgage your soulto 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 HazelwoodSchool District v. Kuhlmeier. A year later he decided to try aninternship at a corporate law firm – but hated it.
Meanwhile, the center’s requests for legal help begansurging in the wake of Hazelwood. Goodman madethe decision to create a year-long attorney fellowship in 1991, doubling whathad long been a one-man legal staff.
Hiestand was at the top of the list, but Goodman wasn’toptimistic 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 allsurprising for an attorney graduating from a law school like Cornell to beoffered 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 anonprofit 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 becameclear 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 studentjournalists, operating what he calls a “legal triage” for the student media. Heanswered the first call for help in what would later become known as the Deanv. Utica case, in which a Michigan student reporter scored one ofthe most significant post-Hazelwood victories forscholastic journalism.
He also helped coordinate the center’s work on two majorcases involving the First Amendment rights of college journalists – cases thatcontinue to frustrate him.
“I can’t believe, in some ways, that we are where we aretoday with student press law,” Hiestand said. “I never, never would have thoughtwe would have had to take up a case like Kincaid, where a collegeofficial is locking up yearbooks in a closet because she doesn’t like the colorof the yearbook cover – and having a judge say that’s OK.”
An appeals court later overturned that decision, but asubsequent case – Hosty v. Carter – once again opened the door tothe possibility of censorship at the college level.
“I mean, if you don’t have free speech on a college campusin 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 tome.”
In 2003, Hiestand moved to the West Coast to be closer tofamily and escape the frenzy of Washington, D.C. He continued to workfull-time, remotely from his home office near Bellingham, Wash., just south ofthe Canadian border. With the help of technology, the transition was seamlessfor most users of the SPLC’s attorney hotline – and despite Goodman’s initialapprehension, ended up expanding service.
“I missed Mike, I missed being able to walk next door andtalk to him about something, but I also knew he was only a phone call away oran email away,” Goodman said. “Again, I think functionally, it not only didn’thurt our work, but in some ways helped because we had that added benefit ofsomebody being in a time zone that allowed them to deal with things in thosehours after the rest of us hopefully were not working.”
The move also put him in close contact with journalismeducators in the Pacific Northwest. He has been a regular fixture atconferences in Washington State, frequently making the multi-hour drive toSeattle and beyond. He testified on several occasions before the statelegislature during the state’s effort to pass student press freedomlegislation.
“We’ve been so fortunate because other people around thecountry don’t have a Mike Hiestand just to the north, who they can call on anytime they want to,” said Kathy Schrier, executive director of the WashingtonJournalism Education Association.
Hiestand contributed to and would become the primary authorof 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 atMiami University of Ohio who sued to get access to campus disciplinary records.The university claimed the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Actprotected the information. The students succeeded before the Ohio Supreme Courtin what became a major victory for transparency on campus, and an earlyinterpretation of FERPA.
“When I spoke or visited with him during that time, it wasclear to me that this was more than a job to him,” said Jennifer MarkiewiczWagman, editor of the Miami Student at thetime. “Although my path to the law hadbeen forged before I met Mike, his support and attention madethe walk down that path easier and a lot less uncertain.He gave me the self-confidence to propel through manychallenging times.”
Wagman is now a writer and a lawyer herself.
One of Hiestand’s most memorable calls involved a highschool student newspaper near New York City. Editors documented what theycalled “filthy” conditions in the school’s restrooms, which they found lackedsoap and toilet paper and were overcrowded. The newspaper reported there beingone working restroom for every 2,000 students at the school.
Administrators required the story changed to have a morepositive tone, and the editor said they threatened to remove him from hisposition and put negative letters in his permanent file. The editor ultimatelyagreed to some changes to the story.
“It just was so stereotypical of the sort of crap thatstudent journalists have to put up with in simply telling the truth,” Hiestandsaid. “It wasn’t sex, drugs and rock and roll, it was simply showing a badsituation that needed to be fixed that school officials didn’t want exposed.”
One of his earliest calls for help had a more positiveending. A high school editor near Los Angeles was told she couldn’t walk atgraduation the following day because of her underground newspaper. Hiestand andhis volunteer attorneys were able to reverse the school’s decision before theceremony. About a week later, he received a letter in the mail with thestudent’s graduation tassel – which continues to hang proudly near his desk.
The SPLC also named Hiestand interim executive director in2007 after Goodman left for Kent State University and the organization searchedfor a new leader. While Hiestand decided to keep his family on the West Coast,his leadership during the search kept the organization steady, said RosalindStark, who chaired the SPLC’s board of directors at the time.
“He was just great to have there, knowing that we didn’thave to worry about things falling apart while we were going through thesearch,” Stark said. “It was very comforting to have him with us.”
Hiestand decided in 2011 to begin phasing out of his rolewith SPLC to focus on a new project. Together with his brother Dan – a formerSPLC intern – he’s started his own company, Houstory Publishing. The paircreated the Home History Book, an archival journal for homeowners to recordinformation, memories and photos of their homes. The company is also preparingto launch its second initiative, an online historical registry of heirlooms.
“Where do you go when you’ve gotten your dream job right outof 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 tocontinue supporting the SPLC’s mission, and hopes student media can useHoustory products as fundraisers.
“We’re really going to miss Mike,” Schrier said. “He’s justbeen a gem to all of us.”
Goodman said Hiestand leaves a lasting legacy in the studentmedia community.
“Honestly, I don’t think there is any one person I couldname who’s made a bigger contribution to student press freedom than Mike,” hesaid.
After answering 15,000 calls for help, presenting atcountless conferences and making an impact on two coasts for 21 years, Hiestandwants those who follow to remember one thing: It isworth fighting for.
“The whole idea of freedom of speech being this inalienableright – it comes from some place higher than the First Amendment. The FirstAmendment, to me, only exists to memorialize the fact that people ought to havethe right to speak freely. But the First Amendment has failed. At least it’sfailed for students and for our next generation of citizens, and I hope thatstudents realize that. We all need to realize that and we all need to wake upto 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 wedon’t lose sight of that.”
— By Brian Schraum