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University wrong to fire student paper adviser over photo of nude streaker

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Paul Isom is looking for a new job today. He was the student media director at East Carolina University. Why was he canned?

On Nov. 8, the [student] newspaper published a full-frontal photo of a streaker who ran onto the field during that weekend’s home football game. The decision prompted outcry from some readers and from university administrators who said it was “in very poor taste.”

If this photo was so controversial and in “very poor taste,” why did the university require two months to decide to give Isom four hours to clean out his office and get outta Dodge?

No doubt lawyers were consulted. After the photo was published, the university’s vice chancellor for student affairs, Virginia Hardy, presaged what would come to pass:

We will be having conversations with those who were involved in this decision in an effort to make it a learning experience. The goal will be to further the students’ understanding that with the freedom of the press comes a certain level of responsibility about what is appropriate and effective in order to get their message across.

Learning experience my ass. The goal of the lesson being taught here is to warn student journalists and their advisers to not cross the university when it comes to maligning its image.

First Amendment be damned; protect the good name of the university — and its abilities to maintain a flack-polished, positive public image so that it can recruit and retain students and faculty and continue to raise money for the university’s endowment and other needs.

I wonder what Sandra Mims-Rowe, retired editor of The Daily Oregonian and a six-time Pulitzer Prize receipient; Dan Neil of The Los Angeles Times, another Pulitzer Prize recipient; Margaret O’Connor, former photo editor of The New York Times and two-time Pulitzer Prize recipient, and Rick Atkinson, journalist, author and three-time Pulitzer recipient, think about canning the adviser. These distinguished journalists are graduates of East Carolina University touted on the university’s website.

The university’s blunt message to student reporters and editors (and future student media advisers) is obvious: Journalism is about maintaining others’ standards of taste rather than their own editorial judgments on how to depict reality. In other words, protect the university’s image.

The university is wrong here: Publishing photos of a person who streaked nude across Bagwell Field at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in a game against the University of Southern Mississippi is news occurring in a public forum. Security staffers tackled the man at the 50-yard line. The photos depicted that. Thus the photos provided a visual account of how security staffers handled themselves in a difficult situation. That’s what newspapers do: Hold government (in this case, the university) accountable for its actions.

The editor, Cailtin Hale, defended the newspaper’s decision:

This decision was made because we felt that our audience, which is primarily the ECU student body, should have access to unedited and factual photos of the streaking incident at last Saturday’s ECU football game. While the photos may be seen as offensive to some, the photos were not meant to be seen as sexually suggestive or insulting, but instead an accurate account of Saturday’s events. [emphasis added]

But the newspaper’s editors did not stop with merely publishing controversial photos. This is a cops and courts story: The paper followed the court case, covering the arrest of the person accused of being the streaker, and doing a follow-up on the court appearance in which the accused was given back his clothes and allowed to apologize to the court.

But all this doesn’t hand Isom, the student media adviser since 2008, his job back.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said firing a man who has advised student publications professionally since 1994 raises First Amendment concerns. From a center press release:

“There’s no camouflaging what this is, which is retaliation for an editorial judgment made by the students that was completely within the students’ authority to make,” LoMonte said. “They’re clearly punishing the adviser for something he not only didn’t control, but legally couldn’t control.”

Isom said he has no problem fighting his termination, and isn’t ruling out legal action against the university.

“If I was not willing to stand up for a First Amendment issue, then I wouldn’t have been advising them the way that I was advising them,” he said. “I would have told them, ‘Yeah, don’t run any controversial pictures, don’t make anybody mad.’”

In my teaching career, I have advised three collegiate newspapers. Students occasionally err in judgment. Such errors in student judgment are the cost universities must bear if they offer journalism programs and encourage independent student newspapers. But not all decisions universities find appalling are errors in student judgments.

This ECU case was not an error in judgment by editor Hale and her staff. They captured a reality that occurred in full view of fans sitting in a 50,000-person stadium. I would have been disappointed in a judgment to not run photos of an event with so many witnesses.

Isom should sue. He did nothing that warranted the university stripping him of his job and his reputation. The university should save itself the cost of defending against the lawsuit and hire him back. Immediately.

Then again, this is the university that graduated Vince and Linda McMahon, founders and chief executives of World Wrestling Entertainment. Maybe the university prefers to wrestle in the mud of public opinion.


Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

January 5, 2012 at 12:44 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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