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Heritage: 1959 ETSC panty raid nearly ended in court battle

September 12th, 2011 6:46 am by Brad Jolly

Some time ago the Press reran the Press-Chronicle’s coverage of the memorable East Tennessee State College panty raid of April 1959. Photographs of two male students exiting a girls’ dormitory window and scurrying away and of a group of panty raiders hoisting undergarments up a flag pole illustrated Paul Mays’ article.

The other day while we were searching the clip file for articles on an event apparently lost to history, we found a more complete panty raid file, including coverage of the newspaper’s efforts to publish the names of the students known to have participated in the reprehensible event.

“About 200 boys swarmed into the main girls’ dormitory area,” Mays reported. “But they were successful only in picking up some of the scanties tossed to them by squealing girls from the dormitory windows.”

The campus police called in the city police, the Highway Patrol and the sheriff’s department to aid them in quelling the event.

The raiders struck again the next night and this time made it to the flagpole to complete their villainous ritual, hoisting undergarments while singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Dean of Students Calvin Mercer said about 40 participating students had been identified and that a “full-scale investigation” was under way.

By the next day the authorities were focusing their attention on the purported panty raid ringleader, Casper Joseph Genovese, a student who had been “released” from the college about a week before the raid. A warrant was issued charging him with trespassing and illegal entry. A college discipline committee questioned 10 male students about their participation in the raid. The result of the questioning “was not made public.”

Mercer termed the raid “an attempt to see how much property could be destroyed, how much hoodlums could do.” Property damage had been estimated at $500.

He noted that many of the students had gone home for the weekend and hoped their parents could “take some corrective measures.”

The estimate of the damage, mainly broken window panes and a dented door, was revised downward to $150.

“I know that a very careful investigation is being made by the college deans,” ETSC President Burgin Dossett said, “and I am confident that, in due course, proper justice will be meted out.”

On April 27, Casper Genovese was given 24 hours to leave the state.

In early May, 20 ETSC students were dismissed from school for their participation in the raid. They would be permitted to apply for readmission after the end of the quarter. Their names were not released.

Toward the end of the year, ETSC’s refusal to release the names of the offending students came to the attention of V.M. Newton Jr., managing editor of the Tampa, Fla., Tribune, president of Sigma Delta Chi national journalism fraternity and chairman of the organization’s freedom of information committee.

“I vigorously protest your action in this case,” Newton wrote Dossett.

Newton said he understood several of the disciplined students were “star athletes, which perhaps is the real reason why their names have been withheld from the press.”

The Press-Chronicle had formally asked Dossett to release the names on the grounds that ETSC was a state college and dismissal of students was a matter of public record. Dossett said the students’ records were private.

Newton’s letter called Dossett’s action “a clear case of secret justice, which is contrary to the principles of American government.”

“The people of Tennessee, who are paying all the bills at the East Tennessee State College, are entitled to full disclosure of all the facts in this case (and) in every other case involving management of their institutions,” Newton wrote. “It is the only way by which the people of Tennessee can determine whether their institution is being properly managed for the good of the people.”

Dossett said he intended to keep the students’ records private until ordered to do otherwise by the state Board of Education.

“Only about half the suspended students came back,” Dossett said. “I believe we lost the bad ones.”

In early December, Press-Chronicle Publisher Carl A. Jones announced the newpaper’s intention to file suit against ETSC and the state Board of Education if the names were not released. Jones said the newspaper’s readers were entitled to the information, particularly since the college was a state, tax-supported institution.

State Solicitor General Allison Humphreys said the open records law did not require colleges to make public the names of suspended or expelled students.

“Differences in opinion make lawsuits,” Jones said.

Other Tennessee newspapers addressed the question in editorials.

“It might seem at first glance … akin to ‘making a mountain out of a molehill,’ ” the Bristol Herald Courier said. “But at the heart of the issue is a determined effort to prevent a molehill from becoming a mountain.”

“Rather than persist in refusing to make public this information from its records, the college would be performing a far greater service if it acknowledged the danger of secrecy in public agencies, however trivial undisclosed data might appear.”

“Right has a way of exerting itself,” declared the Paris Post-Intelligencer, “and it will do so in the case of the panty raid that has caused Mr. Dossett so much embarrassment.”

“Tennessee and the nation need more publishers like Carl A. Jones,” the Post-Intelligencer concluded.

The state Board of Education upheld Dossett’s position and did not direct him to turn over the students’ records. Jones decided not to pursue the matter in court.

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