East Carolina University’s Pitiful Statement About Firing Advisor

By on January 11, 2012

Whoever does damage control over at East Carolina University has been doing a pretty poor job. Not only has the university embarrassed itself nationally and locally (Channel 3, Channel 9, Channel 17 …), but now ECU has put out a statement basically saying, "trust us," as though this will make all those pesky journalists and groups like FIRE, the Student Press Law Center, the National Press Photographers Association, and College Media Advisers go away. 

ECU has given the public not a single reason to trust it, having warned the student newspaper, The East Carolinian, that there would be "consequences" for its decision to publish uncensored photos of a streaker at an ECU football game. Those consequences have evidently included firing the newspaper’s adviser, Paul Isom, who has stated publicly that right after he refused to censor the photos, ECU’s administration markedly changed toward him, while his personnel file shows "nothing negative in it."

Oh, and then there’s that lawsuit in which ECU was taken to the woodshed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit after ECU punished student editors for publishing a letter to the editor that used an expletive when criticizing the university president. Sound a bit familiar?

Yesterday, FIRE received a "Media Advisory" from Joy Holster of ECU News Services (the contact person on the statement is Director of Public Affairs Mary Schulken) advertising a statement by ECU Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Virginia Hardy, the administrator who made the "consequences" comment. Here it is in italics, with my comments interlaced.

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.  

Well, ECU has not actually changed leadership. It fired Isom without hiring someone new. Nor has ECU produced any plan for moving forward. Nor has ECU produced a single document showing that it has ever had a plan or even a plan to make a plan. Nor has such a plan ever been discussed by the people who ought to know: the good folks over at the ECU Media Board, whose meeting minutes seem not to show any evidence of ECU’s apparently secret plans. Maybe having even one of those "facts at hand" would help us believe that ECU has anything at all with which to defend itself. We don’t need to see Isom’s personnel file to see ECU’s plans. And is ECU saying that it merely decided to change leadership or that it actually had a reason to fire Isom? 

It is important to distinguish between any personnel matter and the First Amendment.

Big mistake here. You can fire people for a wide variety of reasons, but when you’re a government agency like ECU, what you can’t do is fire them in violation of their First Amendment rights or in violation of the First Amendment rights of somebody else. Firing Isom in retaliation for the publication of the photos violates the First Amendment, as we pointed out in our letter to ECU last week.

We ask all advocacy groups and the public to trust our internal process, which has been deliberate, correct and legal, as we move forward to address these two separate issues.

I’ll grant "deliberate" in the sense of "on purpose." No dice on "correct" or "legal." As much as ECU wants to keep the First Amendment out of this, it is far too late to pretend that the streaker photos had nothing do to with Isom’s termination. Isom says he asked twice why they fired him and they wouldn’t tell him—they just gave him 4 hours to clean out his desk. He also says there’s nothing negative in his personnel file. Assuming Isom is telling the truth (and if a court gets involved, these matters can be easily checked, as Isom well knows), you don’t have to be Hercule Poirot to solve this mystery.

The First Amendment demands public universities provide student journalists the opportunity to make their own news decisions and learn from them without interference. 

Well, ECU got that one right.

ECU puts that principle first. It has upheld it, especially in this instance.

All except for demanding that the photos be taken down, for warning of "consequences," and for firing the adviser, right? I think what ECU really wants in its student media is an adviser who engages in prior review and who tips off the university, as a spy, in case something controversial is about to be published.

We support The East Carolinian fully. 

With supporters like this, who needs opponents?

Students have been the central focus of what we have done and the decisions that have been made. 

Still waiting for the evidence to back that up.

We have involved them openly when it was constructive and useful for their education, including holding open, informational discussions with the editorial staff 

So ECU wouldn’t mind if there were a recording of that "consequences" discussion and that recording were released, right? 

to talk about the impact of news decisions.

For "impact," read "consequences."

Regarding editorial decisions in student media, we have respectfully allowed the student journalists to take their own course. We have and will continue to support their right to make decisions in publishing a newspaper for their fellow students.

I leave it to our readers to decide whether ECU has acted respectfully toward anyone in this process—The East Carolinian, Paul Isom, the rest of the journalism faculty, the news media subjected to this sad excuse for a public statement, or the ECU News Services staff tasked with disseminating it.

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