Two months ago, East Carolina University and its independent student newspaper, The East Carolinian, made headlines when they ran full-frontal photos of a football-game streaker on their front page.
The decision can certainly be, and was, debated. Some say the ECU community overreacted to the photos, while others argued the nudity was in poor taste and wholly negative.
Yet, ECU was inarguably wrong when it chose to fire Paul Isom, director of student media and the newspaper’s adviser, on Jan. 5.
Isom said the university would not give a specific reason for his firing, according to The East Carolinian, but his relationship with administration “changed fairly noticeably” after the photos’ publication.
After the infamous issue came out, Virginia Hardy, vice chancellor for student affairs at ECU, said in a statement that the universitydisapproved of the photos. However, she said, “it is a learning environment for student journalists who make decisions about news content – and ultimately are responsible for those decisions.”
Yet, dismissing the paper’s adviser for those studentjournalists’ decisions flies directly in the face of Hardy’s statement, and shows the university overstepping its bounds. Firing Isom for the student editors’ choice makes no more sense than firing an art professor for a student’s potentially offensive piece of artwork.
Even if Isom had wanted to hold back the photos, he legally could not do so, according to the Daily Reflector, as state universitynewspapers share the same freedoms as professional newspapers.
A student newspaper adviser’s position is to critique, commend or criticize decisions after thenewspaper’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’sbuilding and utilities, according to the Daily Reflector, the papergenerates its own revenue and is independent in every other sense.
Nude photos of a streaker are an unusual and perhaps less morally righteous case than most campus-newspaper clashes. However, considering the topics an independent student newspaper might cover – scandals or anything not outstandingly positive about the university – any editorial control by the university itself would be dangerous.
National free speechorganizations have already taken notice of the case. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has asked ECU to reinstate Isom, according to the Daily Reflector, and Isom is now consideringtaking legal action.
ECU will seemingly be successful at appearing negatively in the spotlight again. Only this time, it will be the university’s own fault.
No matter what one’s opinion is on the publication of nudefull-frontal photos or The East Carolinian’s work, ECU made the wrong decision in firing Isom – both in fairness and First Amendment rights.