Some of the cases Andrew Jay Schwartzman takes on are pretty arcane. They might be broadcast media regulatory issues at the Federal Communications Commission. Or they could relate to interpretations of the Communications Act of 1934, which requires broadcasters to serve the public interest by offering, among other things, educational and public affairs programming.
But all of Schwartzman's work concerns the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which in essence bars Congress from passing laws to restrict free speech. In practice, what that means is that the government of the United States has an obligation to create opportunities for political debate and free expression, says Schwartman, who cites this is the guiding principle behind his work. "I represent people who seek to have access to information, who seek to participate in debate by speaking and receiving information on important issues and ideas."
Childhood Lesson in Citizen Democracy at the Family Table
Born in 1946, Schwartzman says citizen democracy was a cherished ideal in the middle class suburban home where he grew up. He recalls the conviction with which his liberal and politically engaged parents supported the civil rights movement, which sought full equality for African-Americans. "There was a lot of discussion and argument at the family dinner table," he recalls. "My parents were active in their political party organizing voters and seeking to influence the political process." Schwartzman also became fascinated with the question of how people formed their opinions, and how people expressed themselves publicly and how they decided for whom they are going to vote.
At Law School, Schwartzman Finds His Métier
In 1968, Schwartzman entered the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where he was able to combine his passions for social justice and the process of public discourse by specializing in communications law. While still in law school, Schwartzman began to help with a suit being brought by the activist wing of the United Church of Christ to prevent a Mississippi radio station from getting its broadcast license renewed. The suit claimed that the station discriminated against blacks in its hiring, and broadcast racist speech. "The African American group [plaintiffs] successfully sued in court to have the license taken away," he says, adding that "the case in Jackson Mississippi helped create a broader view of how the public could participate in a regulatory process."
Schwartzman went to work for the United Church of Christ after graduating from law school in 1971. It was an exciting time for him, when citizen activists, such as consumer advocate Ralph Nader, were exerting their power to affect government policies in new ways.
After a stint with federal regulators, he joins Media Access Project
To better understand the federal regulatory process, Schwartzman went to work for the U.S. government from 1974 to 1978. During this time, he established close ties with lawyers at Media Access Project. The group had been founded in 1971 to address concerns that opponents of the Vietnam War were not being fairly represented in the mass media. In 1978, Schwartzman was asked to take the helm there and he readily agreed.
One of the first legal battles Schwartzman won in his new role involved a small radio station in northern New York State whose owner consistently allowed his personal politics to prevent a wide diversity of community views from being heard. It was a tough fight, but after seven years of lawsuits, the station lost its broadcast license. Schwartzman says that this outcome delivered a very important message to other broadcasters: "… that their license belongs to them, but the airwaves belong to the public!"
Communications Technology Changes: Micro-Stations and the Internet
Communications technology itself has changed over the past three decades in ways that have created new challenges and opportunities. For example, it is now easy to create low wattage "micro" FM radio stations that broadcast within one neighborhood or rural community. Schwartzman successfully argued before the FCC to allow such stations to flourish without the complex licensing procedures required of large stations. Today, hundreds of them operate, and many hundreds more are being planned.
"This is very rewarding work," says Schwartzman, who often hears from people who get their community micro-stations on the air. For example, agricultural workers in Florida have used their station to help create a labor union, and make sure their members are well served. "So it's had an important effect on how people communicate with each other and how people can organize politically," adds Schwartzman with evident satisfaction.
Schwartzman sees the campaign to provide media access for everyone continuing on the Internet. For example, he and his staff are working hard to ensure that free speech on websites will remain uncensored, and that it will be against the law for a company to pay a commercial Internet provider to slow down a consumer's access to its competitors' websites. Schwartzman good-naturedly acknowledges that his work will not create an American utopia by itself. But he's proud to be playing a role as a guardian of America's treasured freedoms.