Groups challenge adviser's firing
January 10, 2012
by Jackie Drake
National advocacy organizations are challenging East Carolina University's decision to fire the adviser of the student newspaper.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sent a letter to Chancellor Steve Ballard on Friday asking the university to reinstate Paul Isom, who was fired Wednesday from his position as student media adviser.
The decision came two months after the student-run East Carolinian printed unaltered photos of a nude streaker at a Nov. 5 football game. The university did not publicly release a reason for the dismissal and will not comment further, citing personnel confidentiality.
The university is working on a response to FIRE, though it may take a few days, spokeswoman Mary Schulken said Monday afternoon.
Isom maintains that his termination was in retaliation for the student editors' decision, which he legally could not control. He said last week that he is considering legal action against the university.
"Firing The East Carolinian's adviser unquestionably qualifies as adverse administrative action against the newspaper," the letter from FIRE states, citing several legal precedents. The organization is prepared to use the full range of its resources to secure a "just result" in the case.
"I did not know it (the letter) was coming, but I was bowled over by it; it was thorough and powerful," Isom said Monday evening.
The situation has gained national attention as a freedom of speech issue.
Other organizations are working on responses to ECU on Isom's behalf, including the Student Press Law Center, the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Association of Educators of Journalism and Mass Communications, according to Isom.
"It's hard to wrap my mind around," Isom said. "A former colleague told me it's like I've become a flag bearer for the First Amendment. I didn't mean to, but I'm honored and happy to be one, if necessary."
Student editors at The East Carolinian have not commented. A statement released after the photos ran defended the publication as a factual account of the incident.
Isom attended his exit interview with ECU human resources Monday, which he said "went well," though no further explanation was given as to the reason for his dismissal.
"It's still the same thing; they were being very cautious not to say what the reason was," he said.
As student media adviser since 2008, Isom oversaw The East Carolinian newspaper, the Rebel literary magazine and the Buccaneer yearbook. He said he was not informed of any problems with his work except that administrators were looking to go "in a different direction."
Isom continues in his position as an adjunct professor, teaching one basic reporting class.
Isom stands by his students' decision to print the photos.
"I couldn't be prouder of The East Carolinian students and staff," he said. "I think they've done some great work that shouldn't be overshadowed by one controversial story."
Isom said he has talked informally to some of his students since his dismissal.
"They've been very kind, and I wish them nothing but the best," he said.