East Carolina University: a “Learning Experience”

Freedom of the press is always a little ambiguous as it pertains to college newspapers. But a newspaper scandal is not just about the First Amendment; sometimes the problem is merely who you work for.

On November 8 The East Carolinian, the student newspaper of East Carolina University published a (full-frontal) photograph of a streaker who disrupted the weekend’s football game.

This Wednesday the school fired Paul Isom, the student media director. According to a piece by Brian Schraum at the Student Press Law Center:

Paul Isom said he was terminated Wednesday in what he believes is a response to student editors’ decision to run the photo. Isom said he returned to his office shortly after 11 a.m. to find two unexpected guests – his direct supervisor, Director of Marketing and Communications Chris Stansbury, and a representative from human resources.

He said they initially gave him four hours to clean out his office and leave campus.“They said that I would get severance and my final paycheck at the end of the month,” Isom said. Isom said he received no explanation other than that they “wanted to move in a different direction.”

He served as director of student media at ECU, overseeing all campus student media outlets and directly advising three of them, including the East Carolinian newspaper.

The school appears to be entirely within its legal rights to undertake such an action, but there’s a larger structural problem here.

Why does the student newspaper’s adviser answer to the college’s director of marketing and communications? It’s certainly very unfortunate Isom lost his job but it’s a little unclear why his job existed at all. Why was’t the adviser a tenured professor or an outside volunteer or consultant with experience in journalism?

According to Schraum’s article:

“We will be having conversations with those who were involved in this decision in an effort to make it a learning experience,” said Virginia Hardy, vice chancellor for student affairs, in a statement shortly after the photo was published. “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.”

Apparently students involved with the paper can’t determine what’s appropriate and effective on their own. Don’t the readers of the paper generate the only relevant feedback?

The role of the director of marketing and communications at an academic institution is to make that institution appear as positively as possible to outsiders. There’s seems to be an obvious conflict of interest when that person supervises the student newspaper’s adviser. It’s certainly not the way to produce the best journalism.

Learning experience, indeed. What are students involved with the newspaper going to learn from this experience?

This is the photograph the newspaper ran in November.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer