'The soul of the First Amendment:' Cathy Packer retires after 30 years teaching media law

Cathy Packer gave very clear instructions before her retirement luncheon on Thursday, Dec. 7, luncheon at Carroll Hall: there were to be no long speeches and no embarrassing moments.

The pictures were celebratory enough — the screens in the Freedom Forum cycling through moments of her 30 years teaching media law at the UNC School of Media and Journalism. One shows her lecturing to a group of wide-eyed undergraduates, another of her holding a sign that reads, “I like the First Amendment because I love democracy!”

On the buffet table, where menu cards would normally rest, sit empty blue wine bottles holding cardstock wedged in cork. They toast to the legacy of the W. Horace Carter Distinguished Professor: two books, five book chapters, 40-plus articles and conference papers, 11 honors and awards, 12 research grants, 30 years of service.

Another toasts to her students: 10 undergraduate theses, 26 master's theses, 12 doctoral dissertations.

But there’s a lot more to life than grading papers on Sundays.

“It's time for me to get to do the other things that I want to do,” Packer says, “while I'm still young enough to enjoy them.”

She’s surrounded by friends, colleagues and former students — some of whom drove from Boston, from Florida, from Washington, D.C., just to offer a proper goodbye. There’s Packer, seated in the front of the room, donning the same Carolina blue cardigan and black-rimmed glasses that have endeared her to students over the years.

She says she’s only felt emotional once since announcing her retirement: this year’s First Amendment Day, when she says she shed a lone tear while giving her final address. On this day, she can’t contain her smile.

When Tori Ekstrand — a current assistant professor of media law at UNC — took to the podium to introduce the speakers, she addressed Packer’s mandates to keep the lauding to a minimum. But any media law students from the past 30 years would know that a ruling like this wouldn’t stand unless national security was at stake.

The law didn’t apply here.

“There’s no way I’m going to uphold this prior restraint,” Ekstrand says.

David Ardia, the first speaker of the afternoon, had been dreading this day for months. An associate professor of law since 2011, he had served alongside Packer as co-director of the UNC Center for Media Law and Policy. He knew some day Packer would retire, but he jokes that he didn’t think it’d come for another decade.

She had already planted the seeds of free expression among her students for three decades, he says, her deep and abiding passion for the law always present. He chokes up as he reads a section from her final First Amendment Day speech. She had always felt like a constituent part of the University, one of its essential pillars.

"In many ways,” he says, “I think Cathy embodies the soul of the First Amendment."

A new home

Packer still remembers her first day teaching at UNC, some 30 years ago.

Her first day on campus was two decades earlier, when she came to Carolina as an undergraduate in 1969. She went to high school in Pennsylvania and says she had never heard the words “University of North Carolina,” let alone known someone who had attended. But when her parents moved to Smithfield, North Carolina, Packer found her way to Chapel Hill.

She knew she wanted to be a journalist — she loved learning new things, and she wanted to be “one of the good guys.” So she spent four years earning her bachelor's degree in Howell Hall, which at the time housed the school’s journalism program. It felt like home.

She spent the next five years as a newspaper reporter — a year with the High Point Enterprise and four more with the Charlotte News — covering mostly local government. But, ready for a change, she pursued her master’s degree at the University of Minnesota, where she taught a news course and studied media law in her first semester there.

She fell in love with it.

“It’s like I drank the whole jug of Kool-Aid in the first semester,” she said.

She finished her master’s and doctorate degrees at Minnesota before spending five years as an assistant professor of media law at Boston College. She was still subscribed to “The Journalist,” a tabloid-format newspaper produced by UNC’s journalism school for its alumni and friends. She still remembers reading it one day and seeing that Bill Chamberlin, an associate media law professor at UNC, was leaving for a position with the University of Florida.

“And I got up from behind my desk and stood in the middle of the floor and danced,” she said.

It was the perfect time for change. She was early enough in her career to chase opportunities, and she still had family in Raleigh. It was like coming home.

And so came her first day, a memory still fresh in her mind.

She had been to campus in the weeks before, unpacking her boxes and arranging her office, but the move hadn’t fully set in. Yet when she parked her car in the deck on Rosemary Street and crossed Franklin Street in front of the post office, the feeling from her undergraduate years came flooding back.

“You’re really lucky,” she thought. “This is really happening.”

A voice through change

Through three decades, she’s seen it all.

She was here in 1990, when the then-School of Journalism rebranded to the School of Journalism and Mass Communication; in 1999, when that school moved to Carroll Hall; and in 2015, when it again rebranded to the School of Media and Journalism.

She was here in 2004, when the University established the Center for Media Law and Policy, and five years later, when she was appointed as its faculty director.

She was here in 2005, when longtime Dean Richard Cole passed the torch to interim Dean Tom Bowers, who ceded it to Jean Folkerts a year later. And she was here in 2012, when Folkerts was succeeded by Dean Susan King — who says she has learned what this school embodies through Packer.

“She sets the bar for what the culture of this school is,” King said.

But some things haven’t changed.

She still has that same “Kool-Aid” feeling about media law as she did in her first semester at Minnesota. She taught more about copyright law and broadcast regulations in recent years than she used to, but she still used the same foundational court cases that she learned back in graduate school.

She’s organized First Amendment Day, a campus-wide event celebrating the First Amendment and its role in the lives of Carolina students, every year since 2009. She’s been a strong voice for free expression and access to government information, something she says every journalism school needs.

"Obviously, I didn't solve all of our free speech-related problems on campus,” she said. “But I can be a voice. And I think that people have listened to me.”

Every semester, she’s seen at least one undergraduate who came into her media law class disinterested and left inspired. She still gets emails from former Ph.D. students, who can’t wait to update her on their newest ventures.

Ekstrand — who joined UNC’s faculty in 2012 — was a Ph.D. student under Packer from 1999-03. Now, Packer invites Ekstrand’s husband and daughter to her house for dinner.

“When I think about my relationships with students,” Packer said, “standing at the podium and lecturing to them is not the best of it.”

Woodrow Hartzog, a professor of law and computer science at Northeastern University School of Law, says he came to UNC as a Roy H. Park Fellow in 2008 in large part because of Packer. She taught him how to love the law, love to write and love his students.

And he learned the joys of splitting a bottle of red wine, if only for the camaraderie that spills from it.

“I owe my entire career to Cathy ...” Hartzog said. “Cathy taught me how to be a professor and how to be a mentor to people. She gave me this incredible gift of knowledge and mentorship that’s really difficult to find.”

She had considered retirement before this year, but she wasn't quite ready to leave. All these years after scaling the steps of Howell Hall on her first day of teaching, she still walked around campus each morning in awe.

“‘Cathy, what did you ever do to get this lucky that you get to spend your life at Carolina?’” she’d ask herself. “And I've felt like that for 30 years."

A lasting legacy

It’s a gift she never saw coming.

A men’s basketball season-ticket holder for 30 years, Packer admits her love for media law is rivaled only by her love of Carolina basketball. 

So when her students presented her with a blue and white basketball at the end of Thursday’s luncheon, signed by head coach Roy Williams, her face lit up. It’s a retirement present that far surpasses the typical gold watch.

"I'll be retired,” she says later with a laugh. “I won't need to know what time it is."

She recently bought a new canoe — a Quetico 17 she found used from an outfitter in Minnesota — and she’ll take it with her when she camps in the Everglades in January 2018. In February 2018, she’ll head with a group of friends to Israel, her first international trip since the dozen she made as a faculty member.

Beyond that, she doesn’t know what retirement might bring — and she prefers it that way.

"I decided that if I had to make my plan before I retired, I'd never retire,” she said. “I think I can take the leap and I'll be OK."

The school will be, too. Packer says she wouldn’t have retired if she felt the “cupboard was bare,” but she’s excited about the young hires the school has made in recent years. And she knows whoever fills her role will be ready, just as she was when Chamberlin left before her.

“It's nice to be able to leave and know that everything is OK,” Packer said, “because I care about this school.”

Still, it’s not easy replacing an essential pillar. She remained a fixture in an ever-changing school, championing its core tenets of free expression for three decades. Now, the school will carry that legacy beyond her departure.

“She’s worked hard, and she deserves every single day of retirement,” Hartzog said. “But she’s going to leave a huge hole — because no one can replace Cathy Packer.”