The Papish Case

Going through some old papers I come across a small bundle from the late sixties, and among the letters and forms and certificates is a birthday card from Barbara Papish, a memento that survived the shoving of random handfuls of letters into a stove one winter in Fergus, Ontario, in the course of a pointless row. Only a line, on a card printed, oddly, in Denmark, with two pen-and-ink penguins on the front. Other surviving notes in the bundle are longer and evoke long-forgotten circumstances, troubled letters from a troubled time, from a pre-digital age when people wrote pages of prose longhand. Most of the names I remember and some I am able to trace, all people who remained remarkably true to the intelligence and moral imagination manifest in their letters.

I remember Barbara Papish, although we were not particularly close. I was a young History lecturer on probation. Barbara was an anti-war and free speech activist, a well-known figure on campus. She could be formidable in public, but in private thoughtful, gracious, vulnerable. At the time she gave me the birthday card, in March of 1969, she was sitting in on my course—illegally as it happens—in American Intellectual History, my last teaching stint in Missouri.

Barbara Papish is best known as the successful appellant in a US Supreme Court case: Barbara Susan Papish v. The Board of Curators of the University of Missouri et al.

Masthead of the offending issue in the Papish case.

The facts were never in dispute. Confrontations with campus authorities beginning in 1967 culminated in Barbara’s being expelled from classes and from the university in January 1969. Enrolled as a graduate student in the School of Journalism, Barbara was editor of the Free Press Underground, a radical paper widely circulated on campus. The offence for which she was expelled was the printing on the front page of the paper a cartoon, police raping the Statue of Liberty, that had appeared in other radical papers across the country. This was judged to be obscene and therefore in violation of codes of conduct incumbent on students. She took her case to the Supreme Court, which reversed the curators’ decision in 1973, on the hardly controversial grounds that “the mere dissemination of ideas may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency,’” and that the constitutional right to free speech did not end at university gates.

The dissenting justices, Blackmun, Rehnquist and Chief Justice Burger, thought these grounds were too narrowly conceived. They were disappointed and dismayed that the majority had not considered the wider context. They quote extensively, in their dissenting opinion, from the decision of the appeals court, which, in considering things in the round, as it were, had upheld the university curators. This missing context, needless to say, was not the conduct of the war in Vietnam, nor the hypocricy of American public discourse, nor yet the persecuting zeal of the university administration and curators against a troublesome grad student. No, the proper context in which to view this case was Barbara’s dilatoriness in satisfying the requirements for her degree, that she nevertheless found time to do other things, that she had been warned, that she was not anyway a citizen of Missouri, and that on an earlier occasion she had handed out leaflets that used the beyond-the-pale word m—–f—– (as they daintily put it) at the Memorial Tower, a precinct on campus sacred to the memory of American war dead and in front of visiting high school students and their parents. The clincher was that during the term in which she was expelled she was registered in only one Journalism course, and in Ceramics 4. The term before, the justices note, quivering with indignation, she seems only to have taken Ceramics 3.

Besides this fascinating window on American mental culture at the highest level, I find on the internet from an obituary that Barbara Papish died in June of last year in Beverly, Massachusetts. She had been active there in local political and cultural life and sat on many boards, including the Beverly Solid Waste Committee. “She had strong opinions,” they recalled, “and was not shy about expressing them.”