East Carolina Journalism Faculty, FIRE, SPLC Rally Around Ousted Student Media Director
The sudden termination of East Carolina University student media director Paul Isom has been met with seemingly universal disapproval from the journalism community and advocates involved in First Amendment organizations. As I have previously posted, Isom’s unexplained firing last week has prompted speculation that it was related to the The East Carolinian‘s infamous ‘streaker’ photo published last November on its front page.
Yesterday, the Student Press Law Center sent a public letter to ECU’s chancellor and its board of trustees chairman. Executive Director Frank LoMonte noted SPLC’s deep concern with what it considers a “personnel decision . . . [that] carries profound implications for the overall climate for free expression on campus, and in particular for the willingness of student journalists to publish material that provokes strong public reaction, as journalists must.”
As the letter goes on to mention, “It is neither legally supportable nor educationally sound to punish a college media adviser for the lawful editorial judgments of the students he advises.” Its strongest point comes near the close: “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.”
Robert Shibley, senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), agrees with the latter sentiment, noting, “We hope that ECU makes the right decision and understands that while having a streaker run across the football field might be embarrassing to see in the newspaper, it’s certainly far more embarrassing to be caught violating the First Amendment.”
Prior to SPLC’s missive, FIRE sent its own letter of rebuke to ECU’s chancellor, stating at one point, “ECU would do well to remember, even at this late stage, that the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of expression does not exist to protect only non-controversial speech; indeed, it exists precisely to protect expression that some members of a community may find controversial or offensive. . . . ECU has both a legal and a moral obligation to respect the freedom of expression rights enjoyed by its students. Please spare East Carolina University the embarrassment of fighting against the Bill of Rights.”
As expected, according to a local television news report, Isom’s removal has been “the talk of the journalism department” at ECU. At least one ECU j-prof has spoken out, telling the news station, “Being a personnel decision, I don’t know everything that went into it, but it certainly seems aimed at intimidation, punishment over the streaker photos and maybe other things that have been in the student newspaper. . . . I think it is an unfortunate situation.”