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Firing of ECU Media Adviser Sparks Widespread Response

East Carolina University’s decision to fire its Director of Student Media last week has sparked a widespread response. 

For those new to this case, Isom’s termination comes in the wake of a decision by the editorial board of student newspaper The East Carolinian to run uncensored photos of a streaker at an ECU game on the front page of their issue on November 8, 2011. As Jaclyn wrote on January 6, ECU’s Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Virginia Hardy called the decision to run the photos “in very poor taste,” and noted that ECU officials did not support the decision to print them. 

FIRE wrote ECU last Friday, and more responses are flooding in. Yesterday, the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) sent a letter to ECU Chancellor Steve Ballard and Board of Trustees Chairman Robert V. Lucas. In the letter, SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte urged the Board to conduct an independent investigation into the reasons for Isom’s firing. All signs are that Isom was terminated because of the editorial decision by the independent student editorial board of The East Carolinian, and he must be reinstated. 

SPLC’s letter also notes that in Isom’s capacity as a student media adviser, it would have been not only unlawful for him to censor the publication of the photos, which are constitutionally protected under the First Amendment, but also a violation of the code of conduct of College Media Advisers. LoMonte adds:

Whatever fleeting and minimal impact the newspaper photos had on the University’s image has been worsened a thousand-fold by the decision to remove Mr. Isom without an outwardly apparent lawful justification.

While the photographs that appear to be the provocation for the University’s decision are of no great journalistic significance, the message that is sent by the precipitous removal of an adviser goes beyond a single editorial judgment. The unmistakable message — which the student editors have received, loud-and-clear — is that any controversial editorial decision is subject to severe retaliatory action. [Emphasis added.]

In addition to SPLC’s letter, the decision to fire Isom has prompted criticism from blogs and newspapers. Notably, University of South Florida student paper The Oracle has weighed in today on the decision, citing many of the same problems outlined by FIRE and the SPLC:

A student newspaper adviser's position is to critique, commend or criticize decisions after the newspaper's publication. In other words, Isom was terminated from his position for something he could not control if the students had already made up their minds. 

The firing also sets a disturbing possible precedent for universities trying to exert editorial power over campus newspapers. Though ECU pays for the East Carolinian's building and utilities, [...] the paper generates its own revenue and is independent in every other sense.

The First Amendment Center’s Gene Policinski expresses similar sentiments in his rundown of the case, noting that this situation will undoubtedly cast a negative shadow over East Carolina University’s administration:

Apart from the incident’s particulars and the very real pain to Isom, the situation now stands as a terrible teaching moment — about judgment, press freedom and responsibility, and a university’s position as a place where students can test what they learn and, occasionally, learn from mistakes or controversies without the harm that can follow in “the real world.” [...] [T]he ECU campus officials involved will forever look sophomoric for what seems an overreaction and a fundamental misunderstanding of what an “adviser” does — provide not control, but context, comment and criticism. No fig leaf will cover that exposed condition.

FIRE hopes that SPLC’s letter, FIRE’s letter, and the continuing media coverage will generate the deserved public embarrassment that ECU needs to decide to do the right thing and reinstate Isom. As a public university, ECU should maintain an educational environment where free and open expression is not only tolerated, but encouraged.

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