East Carolina University has yet to provide a reason it fired Paul Isom, the school’s student media director. His firing comes two months after the student paper published a full-frontal photo of a streaker who took the field during a Nov. 8 football game. Isom had been advising student media since 1994 and at ECU since 2008.
Members of "The East Carolinian" editorial board say they were told by ECU administrators that they would face "consequences" for printing the photo, an apparent First Amendment violation, but students who work at the paper never expected something like this.
Last Wednesday, ECU director of marketing, Chris Stansbury and a human resources representative showed up at Isom’s office and gave him four hours to clear his office and leave campus saying the school "wanted to move in a different direction."
Caitlin Hale, "East Carolinian" editor-in-chief, said the decision totally blindsided the newspaper’s editors.
"The whole thing just kind of came as kind of a shock. I think we’re all just still kind of like ‘Well, what do we do now?’" Hale said.
Hale said the newspaper asked, but the administration wouldn’t give a reason for firing Isom. In a statement released Tuesday, ECU said the photo and Isom’s firing are unrelated.
Hale serves alongside Stansbury on the ECU media board, the oversight body for all of ECU student media, but even she wasn’t given any notice that Isom would be terminated.
On Isom’s involvement with editorial decisions Hale said:
"What we did with Paul is that we met up every week and threw around ideas, but as far as the content and production of the paper, he wasn’t involved in that. Later he would give us critiques and feedback. That will definitely be missed because I really feel like that helped us to improve."
On the decision to publish the streaker photo:
"He was in here when it happened. A lot of people think that he didn’t know about it until production, but he was in here when the decision was made."
"I think, but I’m not sure, part of the advisers job is to be the liaison between the administration and the newspaper…The administration might be upset that they didn’t find out about it beforehand. I know they were upset because they were caught off guard about it, and it certainly wasn’t my job to tell them it was going to be in the paper."
Several organizations have come to Isom’s defense in what, to them, seems like a clear-cut case of retaliation and an attempt by the ECU administration to use intimidation to restrict protected expression.
"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," Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center said on Wednesday. "They’re clearly punishing the adviser for something he not only didn’t control, but legally couldn’t control."
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education on Friday sent a letter to ECUdemanding that Isom be reinstated.
ECU, vice chancellor for student affairs Virginia Hardy responded in a statement Tuesday evening.
"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," Hardy said. "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."
LoMonte says the editors may even have a First Amendment claim of their own, but would "The East Carolinian" be up to the fight?
"I haven’t really gotten too involved in it because I’m still a student here and I don’t want to get myself in trouble on top of all of this. But I don’t think they would do it just because of the photos. They have to have some other reason that we don’t know about," Hale said.
Hale said "The East Carolinian" is interested in examining Isom’s job description and asking the administration to explain where he performed poorly. Isom said he has only had positive performance evaluations. Now, Hale says, the administration is reworking the job description.
School officials were still mum on the reason for Isom’s firing Tuesday night.
"[Right now] We are looking at how we might answer questions about how we handled the November incident with "The East Carolinian" in ways that help people correctly understand our respect for the First Amendment and our relationship with the newspaper," Mary Schulken ECU director of public affairs said by phone.
Hale’s main concern now is that most of the newspaper’s senior staff will graduate in May and junior staff will be left without a mentor.
"If they don’t have anybody in place by then, the news staff is going to be completely unaware of how to do things," she said.
Full disclosure: I worked at The "East Carolinian" first as a copy editor, and later as the paper’s news editor where, under Isom’s advising, I was named the College Journalist of the Year by the Southeastern Journalism Conference in 2009.
photo: screen capture of the front page of the Nov. 8 edition of "The East Carolinian"
Schools: East Carolina University