Headphones in, baseball cap and all-black uniform on, energy drinks in tow. He looks tough, ready for a tough job.
And his job is tough. Not physically, but mentally, strategically.
Student Press Law Center Attorney Advocate Adam Goldstein has taken more than 13,000 calls to help student journalists fight for their work.
And he’s still not tired of it.
“I get to get up everyday and fight for justice and sleep with a clean conscience,” Goldstein said. “That counts for something. It’s a really cool job for anybody lucky enough to do it.”
Hired for three consecutive SPLC fellowships before becoming a permanent SPLC attorney, Goldstein has worked for the organization for 10 years this September.
Former SPLC Executive Director Mark Goodman said hiring him was one of the “best things I ever did at the SPLC.”
“Even though he was really just out of law school, Adam did a great job from the start,” Goodman said. “His telephone advice, I think, was one area where it was clear so quickly that his ability to concisely explain complicated legal principles was just mind-boggling.”
Telephone advice is a big part of the job, too, with students and advisers calling for help from across the United States. They might need help with a censorship issue, a newspaper theft, a public records request or copyright law, among other problems.
“Lots of times when students and particularly when teachers call, they’re calling, you know, in a bit of a panic,” said Mike Hiestand, a former SPLC staff attorney. “So I know that having someone on the end of the line like Adam who can just tell them, kind of reassure them, that ‘hey the law is on your side or these are things we can do,’ I know that’s comforting.”
Goldstein said his passion for student journalists’ rights stems from his memories of having incompetent administrators in high school.
“I didn’t have any major run-ins with them, but I just had the sense of I’m actually surrounded by morons,” he said.
Goldstein said his feelings about administrators haven’t changed much since then, when he had “this sense that the people in charge don’t have any idea what they’re doing here.”
“I feel the same way now — that there’s this just disgusting cult acceptance of the idea that teenagers don’t have anything useful to say so it’s okay to burden their speech and it’s okay to make them miserable because they’re not real people,” Goldstein said.
Being able to tell students that they aren’t to blame in a censorship situation and that their administrator is actually at fault is Goldstein’s favorite part of his job. It’s important to him that students know their rights matter.
“If students get censored and they don’t realize that they’re right and the system is wrong at least, then they start doubting like the basic guarantees of civil rights and the Constitution,” Goldstein said.
Though he says censorship will never be eradicated, Goldstein does have hope for student journalists.
“I think each individual student who goes out there and learns to stand for themselves and speak their ideas is like a lottery ticket and some of those numbers are going to hit,” he said. “I feel like it’s never going to be done, but every day our odds get better.”
Since he started working at the SPLC in 2003, Goldstein has helped thousands of students and advisers who call with legal questions. He frequently goes “above and beyond,” in his work, Executive Director Frank LoMonte said, recalling a situation in which Goldstein helped a student fight budget cuts to programs at her school. Goldstein spent hours helping her read financial records and giving her advice.
“There are so many controversies that he has been able to resolve just by being really, really persistent and putting in the nights and the weekends to coach the students,” LoMonte said.
Jaclyn Gutierrez and Lori Schafer were students at Overland High School in Aurora, Colorado, when they reached out to Goldstein. Their newspaper was put under prior review and then shut down. It was a stressful situation, Gutierrez said, but Goldstein was able to help put them at ease with his jokes and reassurance.
“Having two girls call you crying and handling that is a pretty good thing,” Gutierrez said. “Most people don’t do that very well.”
With Goldstein’s help, the paper was brought back without prior review.
“Adam really helped us a lot and helped the next students too, where they don’t have to deal with that,” Gutierrez said.
Madi Alexander, a student at Oklahoma City University, remembers Goldstein as being friendly, helpful and accessible when she was having problems getting public records from her campus police department.
She said she remembers emailing Goldstein about the situation, and him responding that he “actually had to drop everything to reply” because he found it so ridiculous.
He offered her clear advice she could trust, she said. With Goldstein’s help, Alexander went on to write a series of articles showing how her school had failed to comply with the Jeanne Clery Act.
Goodman said he applauds Goldstein’s work with student journalists.
“The thing I always recognized about Adam is that, I mean he’s a brilliant lawyer and there’s so many other things he could have chosen to do with his life,” Goodman said. “The fact that he’s chosen to commit his professional career thus far to student journalism, I think we all owe him a great debt of gratitude. … He’s working to make the world a better place in a very real and concrete way. I applaud him for that and I hope many others do too.”
Dori Goldstein, Adam’s sister, said she describes Adam as having “an overdeveloped sense of justice and an underdeveloped sense of proportion.”
“I mean that he will do what it takes to make sure that there is justice, to the point where it would destroy him,” Dori Goldstein said. “He doesn’t do cost-benefit analysis.”
Adam Goldstein, however, said he takes that criticism as a compliment and calls it the “best definition of me ever.” He just wants justice.
“You’ll end up with a lot of people who are really sweet individuals except for the fact they’re censoring someone,” he said. “If someone’s censoring and out of the course of that fight they lose their job, that doesn’t bother me in the slightest.”
Along with his dedication, Goldstein’s brilliance always shows through, LoMonte said, calling him an “encyclopedia of knowledge.”
“He’s not content to just have a superficial knowledge of anything,” LoMonte said.
Former SPLC Publications Fellow Brian Schraum said Goldstein is like “the SPLC’s First Amendment theologist.”
“He’s the guy who is a hard core First Amendment guy,” Schraum said. “If you need a gut check about whether or not something is a First Amendment issue or not, I think he’s the guy you go to.”
Goldstein said he feels that many people in the journalism community have difficulty acknowledging the true relationship between their craft and the First Amendment.
“A lot of people get into this community because of a love of journalism, and I love journalism too, but we need to remember that journalism exists to serve the First Amendment and not the other way around,” Adam Goldstein said. “Journalism exists to serve freedom. Freedom doesn’t exist to serve journalism.”
After the First Amendment, Goldstein’s other great passion is cooking, a skill that current and former colleagues say they’ve benefitted from. For years, the SPLC and the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press have hosted a summer bake-off competition. Entries are expected to fit a theme, and Goldstein’s always did in a “really funny and pointed” way, Goodman said.
“Once Adam entered it, there really wasn’t much hope for the rest of us,” Goodman said, remembering Goldstein’s entries as “delicious at a level you would pay nice money at a big restaurant for.”
Today, Goldstein runs a website called Yesterdish. He buys old recipe cards from estate sales, researches their history, and publishes his findings along with the original cards.
He treats others to his love of food too, often showing up at the office with interesting snacks in tow, or bringing along baked goods when he speaks to his friend’s class.
“He never comes empty handed,” Cori Zarek said. “[There’s] nothing like your guest speaker showing up with a coffee cake.”
Zarek is an adjunct professor as well as an attorney adviser for the Office of Government Information Services. She met Goldstein while working for the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press, which is housed in the same office space.
“He’s definitely very intelligent and I’ve always appreciated discussing press freedom issues with him,” Zarek said. “He’s fun and funny and I really appreciate his dry, sarcastic sense of humor, sometimes bordering on sadistic. And deep down he’s just such a kind, caring person.”
His thoughtfulness sticks with people. Zarek remembers Goldstein baking her pumpkin biscotti after mentioning her love of pumpkin; Dori Goldstein remembers him delivering just what she needed at 3 a.m. when she was sick with the flu.
He’s the “kindest person you could ever imagine,” Goodman said, and yet “he takes great pleasure in being known as a curmudgeon.”
From his rants about Washington D.C.’s transportation system, WMATA, to his rants about school administrators, to his overall tough persona, Goldstein does succeed in seeming like a curmudgeon at times.
But when a student calls extension 122 for help, it’s a passionate ally they’re speaking with.
“He brings a unique perspective and combined with that he has passion,” Hiestand said. “He believes in what he does, he believes in the SPLC mission and I think that when people call they get that pretty early on…he’s on their side, he is their advocate.”
Goldstein said he is still trying to follow advice he never would have expected, from his anti-trust professor in law school. The professor told the class that when they have the chance to do good for a large group of people, he hoped they would take it, Goldstein said.
“Every time I wake up and there’s a new opportunity to do good, I don’t see any reason to ever stop taking it,” Goldstein said.
And he hopes to keep doing good for student journalists indefinitely.
“I’d be more than happy to die here. I don’t want to retire. Retire from what? Retire from being good? That just sounds terrible,” Goldstein said. “As long as they’ll have me and we can keep the lights on, I don’t have anywhere else I’d rather be.”
By Sara Tirrito, SPLC staff writer.