Education Law Section
By William Joseph Austin Jr.
This article is posted in anticipation of the 2017 Education Law Section Annual Meeting and CLE scheduled for April 21 at the N.C. Bar Center. The theme of the program is freedom of speech in educational institutions.
A 50th anniversary came and went this past fall without fanfare or commemoration. But for several weeks in October and November of 1966, Andrew Marvell’s poem, “To His Coy Mistress,” written circa 1650’s, was a “national sensation.” On Oct. 17, 1966, the television station WRAL reported that a UNC English instructor had assigned his students to write a paper on seduction using this 17th-century poem. Subsequent investigation by a departmental committee determined in November that the instructor, Michael Paull, had not given the students that assignment, but asked them to use the poem to explain imagery and six figures of poetic speech.
In the meantime what was called the “Coy Mistress” case became the subject of television commentaries by then editorialist Jesse Helms in his Viewpoint series. Quoting from the transcript of one of them, he had this to say:
In the sometimes fuzzy, superficial world of misguided academic freedom and irresponsible freedom of the press, all the world is mostly a stage and a good many of the people are actors. Therefore, it is remotely possible, though not logically probable, that the young English professor at Chapel Hill — the one with such an apparent preoccupation with sex — may somehow manage to wear that crown of pious martyrdom so frantically placed upon his head last week by the “liberal” newspapers of the state.
The history of how a freshman English assignment was seized upon by the press and politicized is discussed in depth elsewhere. Yet the “Coy Mistress” case is often forgotten, perhaps eclipsed. This chapter in UNC history occurred in the wake of the 1966 “student revolt” against the Speaker Ban Law. Overturning the Speaker Ban Law was ultimately a victory for academic freedom in the classic sense that educational institutions should be allowed to freely determine on educational grounds who may teach, what may be taught, and how it shall be taught. The “Coy Mistress” case, on the other hand, at least according to one scholar, involved the “politics of character assassination,” referring to the invective heaped on the English instructor and the effect it had on his teaching career. It also involved a direct attack on the Sweezy freedom to let the university determine what may be taught and how. After all, “To His Coy Mistress” was then, and still is, recognized as a “Masterpiece,” reviewed in the eponymous Wall Street Journal weekly feature.
However our purpose here is not to cast judgment, but to demonstrate, once again, what’s past is prologue. Fifty years later, the fall semester of 2016 was marked by increased incidence of newsworthy speech and speech acts in school settings, albeit none as intense (so far) as the “Coy Mistress” case:
- In September a high school teacher resigned after her students said she asked them to compare speeches by Adolf Hitler with those made by then presidential candidate Donald Trump.
- In October, several members of a university marching band, emulating the racial protest of a professional football player, “took a knee” during the Star Spangled Banner at a college football game.
- In November an elementary school canceled a “wax museum” in which third-graders had chosen to portray Adolf Hitler.
- It was reported that a university course on college sports, “Big-time College Sports and the Rights of Athletes, 1956 to the Present,” was the object of efforts to “do away with the course.”
- A high school teacher was suspended for 10 days for stepping on the American flag during a First Amendment lesson.