Media Hammers East Carolina University for Adviser’s Firing

By January 20, 2012

Here on The Torch, we last posted about East Carolina University’s indefensible firing of student media adviser Paul Isom a week ago, as Adam took ECU to task for the school’s embarrassing attempts at damage control. In the week since, we’ve been focused on our recent victories at Syracuse University and the University of Florida, but we certainly haven’t forgotten about ECU’s First Amendment violation—and the press hasn’t, either. 

Let’s start with the student media. Admirably defending the free press rights of their peer publications, editors at The Spinnaker of the University of North Florida penned an editorial last week blasting ECU for their decision to fire Isom. The Spinnaker argued that if ECU had a problem with the paper’s content, it should have spoken to the students, not fired the adviser:

Beyond the mess ECU seems to be creating for itself, there is serious confusion about the role of the media adviser on college campuses.

Student-run college newspapers are just that — run by students, for students. The students write the stories, edit the stories, design the paper, take the photos and make the editorial decisions. They don’t and shouldn’t answer to the professional faculty of the school.

The editorial board of The Signal, Georgia State University’s student paper, questioned ECU’s reasons for firing Isom, pointing out the problems with the university’s action:

Certainly from the outside appearance, the university appears to have fired Isom in retaliation to the inappropriate picture.

If this is the case, the termination is setting a disturbing precedent for universities attempting to exert editorial control over student newspapers. More often than not, the student media advisor is the only leveraging tool the university has control over. Much like The Signal, the university only pays for the utilities of the East Carolinian. In every other sense, it is independent because it generates its own revenue.

Whether sincere and legal in its actions or using the guise of "personnel matters," ECU and other universities should not even contemplate using scare tactics like firing an adviser to put pressure on the student press.

The University of North Carolina — Wilmington’s student paper, The Seahawk, also reported on Isom’s firing, noting the involvement of FIRE and the Student Press Law Center

Members of the student press weren’t the only media observers interested in ECU’s disregard for the First Amendment. The Associated Press covered the incident, pointing out the criticism ECU has garnered from free speech advocates. USA TODAY‘s Dan Reimold also picked up the story, spreading the news of ECU’s free speech fiasco still farther. Finally, popular sports website Deadspin weighed in with its own comment, writing that ECU administrators’ "moral apoplexy" over its student newspaper’s choice of front page photos had "created for themselves a First Amendment issue-and possibly a wrongful termination suit—by firing the school’s student media director."

That’s a whole lot of media coverage for an unseemly First Amendment issue that East Carolina University probably wishes would just go away already. Of course, until the school discovers a newfound respect for the First Amendment rights of its student journalists and rescinds Isom’s termination, FIRE will make sure that this story stays front and center. 

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