Case Study of: Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri 410 U.S. 667 (1973)


The parties involved were Papish versus Board of Curators of the University of Missouri.

Barbara Papish, the petitioner, was a 32-year-old graduate journalism student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism who was expelled for passing out the newspaper, the Free Press Underground, published by the nonprofit Columbia Free Press Corporation, which was a sold newspaper on the university campus for more than 4 years, with authorization from officials in the university’s business office. Papish was a staff member of the newspaper. That edition of the Free Press Underground contacted two things the University of Missouri used as a reason for expelling Papish. On the front page, there was a reproduced political cartoon of a policeman raping the Statue of Liberty and the Goddess of Justice with the caption for the cartoon sating “. . . With Liberty and Justice for All.” While the paper also contained an article with the headline “M___f___ Acquitted. The story was on a New York City youth who had an assault charge who was a member of an organization known as “Up Against the Wall, M___f___.” The story discussed the trail and its acquittal of the charge on the youth.

The Student Conduct Committee found that Papish violated a by-law of the General Standards of Student Conduct, which requires students “to observe generally accepted standards of conduct,” and specifically prohibits “indecent conduct or speech.” Papish went to the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri claiming that her expulsion was improperly premised on activities protected by the First Amendment. The District Court then denied relief and then the Court of Appeals affirmed, one judge, dissenting with an en banc being denied equally by a divided vote of all the judges in the Eighth Circuit. The District Court called the newspaper’s content in that edition obscene. The Court of Appeals held that the “freedom of expression” could properly be “subordinated to other interests, such as, for example, the conventions of decency in the use and display of language and pictures.”


The question laid upon the court: does the First Amendment protect content distributed on a college campus that may violent “conventions of decency?”

Rule of Law:

The rule of law is that since the First Amendment leaves no room for the operation of a dual standard in the academic community with respect to the content of speech, and because the state University’s action here cannot be justified as a nondiscriminatory application of reasonable rules governing conduct, the judgments of the courts below must be reversed.

In a Per Curiam opinion, the Eighth Circuit’s ruling was decided several days before the Court handed down Healy v. James, 408 U. S. 169 (1972), in which, while recognizing a state university’s undoubted prerogative to enforce reasonable rules governing student conduct, they reaffirmed that “state colleges and universities are not enclaves immune from the sweep of the First Amendment.” Id. at 408 U. S. 180. See Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, 393 U. S. 503 (1969). The majority also held that Papish “was expelled because of the disapproved content of the newspaper, rather than the time, place, or manner of its distribution,” and that the cartoon and the headline were not obscene. In a dissenting opinion from Justice William Rehnquist, he said that he continued to adhere to the dissenting views expressed in Rosenfeld v. New Jersey, 408 U. S. 901 (1972), that the public use of the word “M___f___” is “lewd and obscene” as the Court used those terms in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U. S. 568 (1942).

It was a Per Curiam decision for Papish.

Key Quote and Precedent:

“We think Healy makes it clear that the mere dissemination of ideas — no matter how offensive to good taste — on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of “conventions of decency.” Other recent precedents of this Court make it equally clear that neither the political cartoon nor the headline story involved in this case can be labeled as constitutionally obscene or otherwise unprotected. E.g., Kois v. Wisconsin, 408 U. S. 229 (1972); Gooding v. Wilson, 405 U. S. 518 (1972); Cohen v. California, 403 U. S. 15 (1971)”, Justice Burger wrote in the opinion.

 My Opinion:

I would have ruled for Papish, because I believe that the speech of the press is an important one; however, I do not agree on the way Papish went about it. Papish needs to be responsible for herself and eventually graduate from college. All it seems like is that she was there hanging at the college just to push whatever agenda she might have been carrying out, because I certainly felt like she wasn’t there to take classes or graduate in a reasonable amount of time.

It would seem Papish would have been a better fit as a political activist rather than a journalist, but college must remain an open discussion for topics such as what Papish was sharing around campus. If the school focused on time, place, and manner, maybe this would have better helped them in this case, or they could have excused the paper and help Papish graduate in whatever way they could.

It wasn’t right on either side, but the Frist Amendment must be upheld.


A 1st Amendment assessment from my COMS 400 Communication Law and Ethics class at Radford University. This is 6 of 10.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: