Public interest communications “law firm and advocacy organization” closes up shop

Media Access Project (MAP), a long-time player in the soap opera that is communications law, has left the show. As of May 1, MAP suspended operations “after evaluating the difficult funding environment facing MAP and other progressive public interest groups.”

Founded in 1973, MAP assumed a variety of roles over the course of its 39-year history. To some it was a tough litigator, a thoughtful advocate, and a mouthpiece for a wide range of interests that might not otherwise have had a mouthpiece. To others, it was a self-promoting buttinsky given to advancing positions of questionable (if any) validity. A seemingly constant presence in the mainstream press, it could be a total pain in the tail to those with whom it disagreed. Many – maybe even most – “industry” representatives may have disagreed with many – maybe even most – of MAP’s positions and tactics. But MAP, apparently indefatigable and unquestionably resourceful, made its voice heard, for better or for worse.

MAP prevailed in a number of important cases before the Commission and the courts and succeeded in swaying legislative policy. But MAP’s more lasting impact will likely be the fact that it spawned, directly and indirectly, a new generation of like-minded organizations that will carry on MAP’s work into the 21st Century. The ongoing work of those organizations will be MAP’s true legacy.

The demise of MAP has a particular, personal, effect on this blogger.

In 1975, barely a year out of law school, I entered the private practice of communications law. My first role: litigation grunt in a large law firm helping a Lansing, Michigan TV-AM-FM licensee defend its licenses in an FCC hearing. The hearing had been triggered by – you guessed it – MAP, which had successfully petitioned against the stations’ renewals on behalf of the Lansing ACLU. MAP was then headed by Harvey Shulman, with able assistance from his colleague, Collot Guerard. (Andy Schwartzman eventually replaced Harvey.) This may have been MAP’s first real case. It was certainly mine. We were all just kids then, wailing away on each other as trial lawyers are wont to do. The case dragged on for years.

Since then we have faced off against each other in some cases, we have joined forces in other cases, and we have occasionally conferred with each other on various issues, as long-time veterans with mutual respect for one another sometimes do.

It is both bittersweet and sobering to realize that MAP, an institution that has been a prominent part of my professional landscape for as long as I’ve had a professional landscape, is now gone.

But let’s not get all morose because, whatever you might have thought of MAP, its story is pretty remarkable. Just how far did MAP come over the course of its existence? Consider this: in 1975, word was that MAP’s litigation of the Lansing case was being funded in large measure by spaghetti supper benefits held in the homes of ACLU members in Lansing. Now, in 2012, MAP is throwing itself a going-away party. True to its roots, MAP is using the opportunity to raise funds (to retire debt and close out operations). Sponsorships up to $5,000 a pop are suggested. That’ll buy a lot of spaghetti. Perhaps even more indicative of MAP’s latter-day stature: MAP says that both Chairman Genachowski and former Commissioner Copps will be attending the party and delivering remarks.

From a somewhat ragtag, shoestring operation born in the 1970s, MAP put itself on the map. It’s now gone, but it will not soon be forgotten.