The Public Interest Communications Law Project and the Benton Senior Counselor

The Benton Foundation and Georgetown Law are establishing the Public Interest Communications Law Project, under which Andrew Jay Schwartzman will serve as the Benton Senior Counselor at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Public Representation (IPR). Our goal is to create a cohort of younger and more diverse advocates to work on closing the digital divide, so our most vulnerable populations can participate fully in a diverse media system and our democracy.

What’s critical here, in my view, is that the experiences of all people inform media and telecommunications policy decisions.

Andy, who led the Media Access Project (MAP) for 34 years, is recognized by many as the “dean” of public interest communications attorneys. MAP was a non-profit public interest telecommunications law firm which represented the public in promoting the First Amendment rights to speak and to hear. It promoted a well informed electorate by insuring vigorous debate in a free marketplace of ideas – and was the chief legal strategist in efforts to oppose major media mergers and preserve policies promoting media diversity. MAP also led efforts to promote openness and innovation on broadband networks and to insure that broad and affordable public access is provided during the deployment of advanced telecommunications networks. Unfortunately, MAP had to close its doors in 2012.

Andy Schwartzman’s brilliant career is perhaps too expansive to capture here. He is a leader in promoting civil rights and civil liberties in media and telecommunications. For nearly four decades, he has gained extraordinary knowledge about the affected industries and this has afforded him the opportunity to forge close ties with stakeholders. Because of his seniority and litigation successes, he is widely regarded as a leader in the communications bar, and thus has unique access to high-level decision makers. He is a member of the Federal Communications Commission’s Advisory Committee on Diversity in the Digital Age. In addition, Andy teaches at Johns Hopkins University School and has served on the boards of the Southwestern Law School’s National Entertainment & Media Law Institute, the Minority Media Telecommunications Council, and the Media and Democracy Coalition from 2007-2009.

Andy is a frequent guest on television and radio programs such as The Today Show, Nightline, Marketplace Radio, network evening TV newscasts, and All Things Considered. And his work has been published in major legal and general journals, including Variety, Electronic Media, The Washington Post, COMM/ENT Law Journal and The ABA Journal. Andy was the Law and Regulation Contributor to Les Brown's Encyclopedia of Television, and is the author of the telecommunications chapter in the Encyclopedia on the Consumer Movement.

In recognition of his service as chief counsel in the public interest community’s challenge to the FCC’s June, 2003 media ownership deregulation decision, The Scientific American honored Andy as one of the nation’s 50 leaders in technology for 2004. Schwartzman is also the 1994 recipient of the United Church of Christ Office of Communication’s Everett C. Parker Award and the 2004 recipient of the Media Matters Life Achievement Award. In September, 2012, Public Knowledge gave him its IP3 award “for a lifetime of work on promoting the public interest in a diverse media market place.”

One of Andy’s greatest legacies and contributions to the media reform and public interest field is the cadre of highly capable attorneys who came under his tutelage during his years running MAP. He devoted himself to training and motivating young law students and lawyers to engage in public interest advocacy. As Andy says, “About 20 years ago, Gene Kimmelman and I spent an afternoon brainstorming about the problem that the media reform community largely consisted of aging baby-boomers. Although Media Access Project had always had law student interns, and some of them had remained in public interest work after law school, our conversation impelled me to redouble my efforts to create a cohort of younger advocates.”

Many of Andy’s mentees have gone on to serve as public interest advocates and government policymakers. For example:

  • Gigi Sohn is Special Counsel for External Affairs for Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler. Sohn worked with Andy for 10 years at MAP. During that time he urged her to take leadership roles, and encouraged her to undertake her campaign to be the first openly gay member of the DC Bar Board of Governors. She cofounded and served as president of Public Knowledge, which has some twenty people working on communications and intellectual property issues.
  • Cheryl Leanza, another long-time MAP attorney, now works on media issues for the Office of Communication, Inc. United Church of Christ (OC, Inc.) and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
  • Harold Feld is Legal Director at Public Knowledge and considered to be the leading theorist in the field.
  • Parul Desai, after her service at MAP, joined the staff of Consumers Union, and is now with the Media Bureau of the Federal Communications Commission supervising low-power FM policy.
  • Matthew Wood worked at MAP before becoming the Policy Director for Free Press where he shape’s the organization’s efforts to protect the open Internet, prevent media concentration, promote affordable broadband deployment and prioritize a revitalized public media.
  • Before becoming a staff attorney and clinical teaching fellow at IPR, Jessica Gonzalez clerked at MAP. She is now Executive Vice President and General Counsel at the National Hispanic Media Coalition.

Other former MAP staff continue their work at Public Knowledge, the New America Foundation and on Capitol Hill. MAP succeeded in efforts to channel the organization’s student interns towards public interest work as well. Former MAP interns, among others, work on media and telecommunications issues at Free Press, the New America Foundation, the Federal Communications Commission, the City of Portland, and Walnut Creek (California).

In the next phase of Andy’s career now at IPR, he will continue to develop a new generation of media and telecommunications lawyers, mentor law students, and represent civil rights, civil liberties, media justice, religious, and other organizations on telecommunications and media issues.

This project has been made possible by many partners. The Benton Senior Counselor position is supported by generous grants from The Alphawood Foundation, Ford Foundation, and the Media Democracy Fund. Alphawood Foundation is a Chicago-based grant making private foundation working for an equitable, just and humane society. It awards grants to more than 200 organizations annually, primarily in the areas of advocacy, architecture and preservation, arts, domestic violence prevention, the environment, promotion and protection of the rights of LGBT citizens and people living with HIV/AIDS, and other human and civil rights. The Ford Foundation is an independent, nonprofit grant-making organization. For more than 75 years it has worked with courageous people on the frontlines of social change worldwide, guided by its mission to strengthen democratic values, reduce poverty and injustice, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement. With headquarters in New York, the foundation has offices in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The Media Democracy Fund, a hosted project of the Proteus Fund, partners with foundations and donors to award grants that protect and promote the public’s rights in the digital age. MDF helps grant makers of all sizes and issue areas amplify their impact.

The Institute for Public Representation (IPR) is a public interest law firm and law school clinic. Under the supervision of Professor Angela Campbell, IPR students and Graduate Fellows represent leading media reform organizations, civil rights groups, children’s advocates, consumer groups, and other non-profit groups (including the Benton Foundation) before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and the Federal Courts. The addition of the Benton Senior Counselor will expand the IPR’s capacity to give voice to the needs and concerns of the nation’s most vulnerable populations in telecommunications policy debates and to provide public representation in such critical areas as the transition of traditional wireline telephone service to broadband (known “the IP transition”), Universal Service Fund reform, particularly of Lifeline and E-Rate, Diversity of Media Ownership and Spectrum Policy.

The Benton Foundation will support the project’s mentoring and representation efforts with advocacy, communications, convening, fundraising and administration. Amina Fazlullah, Benton’s Director of Policy, will work with IPR and Schwartzman on broadband policy areas of mutual interest, including the IP transition and modernization of the FCC’s E-rate and Lifeline programs. Benton and Campbell will work with writers, including Schwartzman, on articles highlighting the work. Andy's first article for Benton's Digital Beat blog is "Did Congress Empower the FCC to Regulate the Internet? Appeals Court Says 'Yes'".

Because diversity in the marketplace of ideas is at stake, it is imperative that allies like Alphawood, Benton, Ford, the Media Democracy Fund, Georgetown’s IPR and Andy Schwartzman join together to help educate young law students and advocate for the public interest in communications.

Adrianne B. Furniss is Executive Director of the Benton Foundation