Near the start of the year, officials at East Carolina University fired Paul Isom, the school’s student media director, without warning or much explanation. The sudden termination has prompted speculation among the media and free speech advocacy organizations that it was in retaliation for controversial photos published by ECU’s student newspaper.
In November, The East Carolinian published a series of front-page pictures of a streaker racing across the field at halftime of a university football game. At least one of the shots featured easily-discernible full-frontal nudity.
At the time, East Carolinian editor-in-chief Caitlin Hale explained that editors "felt that our audience, which is primarily the ECU student body, should have access to unedited and factual photos of the streaking incident [something many on campus were apparently talking about]. . . . While the photos may be seen as offensive to some, the photos were not meant to be seen as sexually suggestive or insulting, but instead an accurate account of Saturday’s events.
The images rocketed the paper into controversy on ECU’s campus and online. At least 600 copies of the issue carrying the picture were stolen or trashed. Detractors felt the photos were overly sensationalist and too graphic for a mainstream news outlet, student or professional.
As one ECU senior journalism student told a local television news station, "I understand . . . you want to do big stories and you want to make things that are controversial and I guess make a name for yourself, I suppose, but they didn’t do it the right way."
School officials also publicly expressed their displeasure in November, promising follow-up conversations with student staff about balancing press freedom with responsible editorial decision-making. Yet, as 2012 dawned, they appear to have traded words for action, targeting Isom as a scapegoat— even though he does not exert prior review of East Carolinian content.
On the day he was fired, Isom told prominent journalism blogger Jim Romenesko, "When [the paper] ran the streaker photos . . . I immediately felt my job might be in jeopardy. I was asked by the vice chancellor for student affairs [Virginia Hardy] to delete the photos from the web and told her as politely as possible, ‘If we do that this will go from being a controversy that will die in a few days to a slam dunk First Amendment issue that will drag on for years.’ . . . At the end of a meeting that included me, the editorial staff and several administrators, the vice chancellor said, ‘There will be consequences.’ There were none until today."
In the past week, the College Media Association (CMA) has launched an official inquiry into Isom’s termination and several high-profile organizations have sent letters of concern to ECU’s leadership, including the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the Student Press Law Center(SPLC).
"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," said SPLC executive director Frank LoMonte. "They’re clearly punishing the adviser for something he not only didn’t control, but legally couldn’t control."
In response, Hardy released a public statement. It notes at the start, "East Carolina University is concerned that a decision to change leadership in its director of student media role has been connected to a First Amendment issue without full knowledge of the facts at hand. It is important to distinguish between any personnel matter and the First Amendment. We ask all advocacy groups and the public to trust our internal process, which has been deliberate, correct and legal."