For weeks now, East Carolina University (ECU) has been under pressure from FIRE, the media, and the general public after its firing of Paul Isom, adviser to The East Carolinian student newspaper, after controversial photos of a streaker appeared in the paper’s front pages.
ECU has been torched in the press and deservedly so, given its ham-fisted handling of the case in addition to the firing itself. ECU’s public statements have only fanned the flames, and Adam has appropriately dissected them in a pair of blog posts—the first, on ECU’s statement essentially telling the public, "trust us, we’ve got this"; the second, on its statement saying, among other things, that ECU would be happy to tell the world about its reasons for firing Isom if only it could release his file’s confidential contents to the public (notably, ECU said this without informing Isom).
Since then, ECU has remained mostly silent, though it did pipe up for just long enough to respond to FIRE’s January 6 letter asking for Isom’s reinstatement. ECU’s one-page response is incredibly light on content. Much of the letter is spent defending ECU against accusations that were not made in the first place. Instead, the letter ignores the fact that punishing The East Carolinian by means of punishing the advisor is still a free speech violation against both the newspaper and the advisor. ECU’s response is impossible to take at face value anyway, given Isom’s unceremonious ouster and the fact that nothing has ever come to light to suggest that ECU did not do exactly what just about everyone thinks: It fired Isom in retaliation for the publication of the streaker photos.
In ECU’s letter, ECU attorney Donna Gooden Payne falls back once again on secrecy, saying that "the University will not respond because that is a personnel matter subject to privacy obligations." We’re back now in the land of "trust us." But as long as East Carolina keeps playing this tune there will be little reason for anyone concerned about free speech to trust ECU.
Isom is fighting his termination, and we will post more on The Torch soon.