The East Carolinian and the Student Press Law Center both reported yesterday that Paul Isom, Director of Student Media at Eastern Carolina University (ECU), was fired on Wednesday. Isom’s advising portfolio included the campus radio station, television station, yearbook, and several student magazines. But it was a student editorial decision by The East Carolinian, the independent campus newspaper, that apparently landed him in hot water with ECU administrators.
On November 8, 2011, The East Carolinian published uncensored photos—including a sort-of-full-frontal shot—to accompany an article about a streaker at an ECU football game. The pictures prompted some outcry, and copies of the issue were reportedly stolen. Virginia Hardy, ECU’s Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, responded with a statement saying that running the photos was "in very poor taste" and that ECU officials did not support the decision to print them.
The East Carolinian‘s editor, Caitlin Hale, defended the paper’s decision to run the photos, saying, "we felt that our audience, which is primarily the ECU student body, should have access to unedited and factual photos of the streaking incident." As newsworthy photos of a streaker do not meet the Supreme Court’s Miller test for obscenity, they are constitutionally protected. Freedom of the press seemed to prevail.
But now, Isom has been fired. He told The East Carolinian that campus administrators "were very careful not to give a specific reason," although he "asked twice." This response (or non-response) strongly suggests that ECU fired the adviser in order to punish the paper—and if that’s indeed why Isom was fired, ECU has acted unconstitutionally. That’s because the First Amendment protects the right of student journalists to print and disseminate photographs like those published on November 8, and courts have long held that adverse administrative action taken by a public university against a student newspaper as a result of protected speech (including firing its adviser) violates the First Amendment.
The impermissible chill on student speech that ECU has engendered on campus by firing The East Carolinian‘s adviser is obvious and shameful. ECU will be hearing from FIRE soon.