East Carolina University Digs Deeper Hole with Second Public Statement in 2 Days

By on January 12, 2012

Yesterday I deconstructed East Carolina University’s pitiful public statement invoking the "just trust us" defense after it fired the adviser to The East Carolinian because the independent student newspaper (like it or not) published uncensored photos of a streaker at an ECU football game.

Today, I repeat: Whoever does damage control over at East Carolina University has been doing a pretty poor job. This is because ECU put out another public statement yesterday, basically claiming that if it only could release confidential information about fired adviser Paul Isom, everyone would know that ECU has been right all along.

What’s so confidential about the decision to (as ECU has labeled it) merely "change leadership"? ECU needs to get its fake story straight: is this about a secret new direction for advising student media (secret because apparently there is zero documentation and this story came as a surprise to everyone), or is it about a secret personnel issue? The truth is that every single sign outside of ECU’s institutional spin tells us that this case is really about punishing a student newspaper and its adviser for content protected by the First Amendment.

Besides, as various local outlets including The News & Observer have reported, Isom only found out that ECU is asking him to waive his privacy rights after ECU issued its public statement:

Isom said he was not informed about the consent request before ECU released it to the media. [...] "If they have an explanation to provide to the rest of the world, show it to me first," he said in an e-mail. "I’ll decide whether or not I’ll waive my rights after I see their explanation. … This is an insulting way to treat a member of the ECU community."

Indeed, this is doubly insulting because Isom earlier asked multiple times why he was being fired and ECU refused to tell him. He also retrieved his personnel file from ECU, and he says his personnel file is clean. How can ECU justify asking for permission to tell everyone in the world about the supposed reason for his firing when it won’t even tell him what it is?

For what it’s worth, here’s ECU’s statement from yesterday, with some additional comments from me.

East Carolina University is seeking the consent required under state personnel statutes to release confidential information needed to describe the process used by the university to make a decision 

Wow, that must be a pretty serious secret, if it even covers "the process used by the university to make a decision" in this case.

to change leadership in its student media adviser role, according to Donna Gooden Payne, university attorney.

If ECU means this statute, I wonder if this provision is just the ticket:

(7) The chief administrative officer, with concurrence of the authority, may inform any person of the [...] termination of an authority employee and the reasons for that personnel action. Before releasing the information, the chief administrative officer or authority shall determine in writing that the release is essential to maintaining public confidence in the administration of authority services [...] [emphases added].

By the way, the statute provides that an employee’s personnel file is not just a particular folder with his name on it, but "any information in any form gathered by the authority with respect to that employee and, by way of illustration but not limitation, relating to his application, selection or nonselection, performance, promotions, demotions, transfers, suspension and other disciplinary actions, evaluation forms, leave, salary, and termination of employment." So when Isom asks for his file, he deserves to get his whole file.

Payne said Wednesday the university is seeking permission from Paul Isom, former director of student media, to release his confidential personnel information.

As stated above, this came as a surprise to Isom.

ECU continues to disagree with reports and statements by advocacy groups that connect that decision with a First Amendment issue.

Meanwhile, the First Amendment (with a growing number of people and organizations) seems to disagree with ECU.

"A fuller knowledge of the facts at hand will help distinguish between any personnel matter and the First Amendment," said Mary Schulken, director of public affairs.

This pretty much sums up the "trust us and our secret information" defense. What a shame.

Schools: East Carolina University Cases: East Carolina University: Student Newspaper Adviser Fired After Publication of Streaker Photo