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East Carolina fires newspaper adviser in wake of 'streaker' controversy

January 4, 2012

NORTH CAROLINA — East Carolina University fired its student media director Wednesday, two months after the newspaper he advised published a controversial front-page photo of a streaker.

Paul Isom said he was terminated Wednesday in what he believes is a response to student editors’ decision to run the photo. Isom said he returned to his office shortly after 11 a.m. to find two unexpected guests – his direct supervisor, Director of Marketing and Communications Chris Stansbury, and a representative from human resources.

He said they initially gave him four hours to clean out his office and leave campus.

“They said that I would get severance and my final paycheck at the end of the month,” Isom said.

Isom said he received no explanation other than that they “wanted to move in a different direction.”

Isom has been an adviser at ECU since 2008, and first began advising college publications in 1994. He served as director of student media at ECU, overseeing all campus student media outlets and directly advising three of them, including the East Carolinian newspaper.

On Nov. 8, the newspaper published a full-frontal photo of a streaker who ran onto the field during that weekend’s home football game. The decision prompted outcry from some readers and from university administrators who said it was “in very poor taste.”

“We will be having conversations with those who were involved in this decision in an effort to make it a learning experience,” said Virginia Hardy, vice chancellor for student affairs, in a statement shortly after the photo was published. “The goal will be to further the students’ understanding that with the freedom of the press comes a certain level of responsibility about what is appropriate and effective in order to get their message across.”

Isom said he was told a “team of administrators” was involved in the decision to fire him and that it was approved by the university’s legal counsel, but that the ultimate decision came from Stansbury.

Neither Stansbury nor a university spokeswoman immediately returned calls seeking comment. East Carolinian Editor-in-Chief Caitlin Hale also did not immediately return a call for comment.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said Isom’s firing raises serious First Amendment concerns.

“There’s no camouflaging what this is, which is retaliation for an editorial judgment made by the students that was completely within the students’ authority to make,” LoMonte said. “They’re clearly punishing the adviser for something he not only didn’t control, but legally couldn’t control.”

Isom said he has no problem fighting his termination, and isn’t ruling out legal action against the university.

“If I was not willing to stand up for a First Amendment issue, then I wouldn’t have been advising them the way that I was advising them,” he said. “I would have told them, ‘Yeah, don’t run any controversial pictures, don’t make anybody mad.’”

The editors may have a First Amendment claim of their own, LoMonte said. Students generally have broader free speech rights than employees at public universities.

“I think it’s absolutely incumbent on the college to come forward with some lawful explanation – if they can,” LoMonte said. “They owe it to the students to demonstrate that this is not retaliation for a lawful editorial content decision. If they can’t do that, then they’re not just in violation of the law but they’re acting way outside of the mainstream of what we expect from a public university.”

Isom, now unemployed, said he initially felt stunned and disappointed and is now unsure what the future holds.

“It’s mixed, it’s a little scary. How am I going to earn a living? Right at this moment, I don’t know.”

By Brian Schraum, SPLC staff writer


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© 2012 Student Press Law Center

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