NORTH CAROLINA —East Carolina University fired its student media director Wednesday, two monthsafter the newspaper he advised published a controversial front-page photo of astreaker.
Paul Isom said he was terminated Wednesday in what hebelieves is a response to student editors’ decision to run the photo. Isom saidhe returned to his office shortly after 11 a.m. to find two unexpected guests –his direct supervisor, Director of Marketing and Communications ChrisStansbury, and a representative from human resources.
He said they initially gave him four hours to clean out hisoffice and leave campus.
“They said that I would get severance and my final paycheckat the end of the month,” Isom said.
Isom said he received no explanation other than that they“wanted to move in a different direction.”
Isom has been an adviser at ECU since 2008, and first beganadvising college publications in 1994. He served as director of student mediaat ECU, overseeing all campus student media outlets and directly advising threeof them, including the East Caroliniannewspaper.
On Nov. 8, the newspaper published a full-frontal photo of astreaker who ran onto the field during that weekend’s home football game. The decisionprompted outcry from some readers and from university administrators who saidit was “in very poor taste.”
“We will be having conversations with those who wereinvolved in this decision in an effort to make it a learning experience,” saidVirginia Hardy, vice chancellor for student affairs, in a statement shortlyafter the photo was published. “The goal will be to further the students’understanding that with the freedom of the press comes a certain level ofresponsibility about what is appropriate and effective in order to get theirmessage across.”
Isom said he was told a “team of administrators” was involvedin the decision to fire him and that it was approved by the university’s legalcounsel, but that the ultimate decision came from Stansbury.
Neither Stansbury nor a university spokeswoman immediatelyreturned calls seeking comment. EastCarolinian Editor-in-Chief Caitlin Hale also did not immediately return acall for comment.
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press LawCenter, said Isom’s firing raises serious First Amendment concerns.
“There’s no camouflaging what this is, which is retaliationfor an editorial judgment made by the students that was completely within thestudents’ authority to make,” LoMonte said. “They’re clearly punishing theadviser for something he not only didn’t control, but legally couldn’tcontrol.”
Isom said he has no problem fighting his termination, andisn’t ruling out legal action against the university.
“If I was not willing to stand up for a First Amendmentissue, then I wouldn’t have been advising them the way that I was advisingthem,” he said. “I would have told them, ‘Yeah, don’t run any controversialpictures, don’t make anybody mad.’”
The editors may have a First Amendment claim of their own,LoMonte said. Students generally have broader free speech rights than employeesat public universities.
“I think it’s absolutely incumbent on the college to comeforward with some lawful explanation – if they can,” LoMonte said. “They owe itto the students to demonstrate that this is not retaliation for a lawfuleditorial content decision. If they can’t do that, then they’re not just inviolation of the law but they’re acting way outside of the mainstream of whatwe expect from a public university.”
Isom, now unemployed, said he initially felt stunned anddisappointed and is now unsure what the future holds.
“It’s mixed, it’s a little scary. How am I going to earn aliving? Right at this moment, I don’t know.”