GREENVILLE — As criticism mounts over East Carolina University's firing of the adviser to its student newspaper, a university official on Tuesday defended the dismissal, saying it was related to an undisclosed personnel matter separate from any First Amendment issues.
"We ask all advocacy groups and the public to trust our internal process, which has been deliberate, correct and legal, as we move forward to address these two separate issues," said a prepared statement by Virginia Hardy, vice chancellor for student affairs.
ECU officials have been the target of anger after the firing last week of Paul Isom, the director of student media since 2008 and adviser to The East Carolinian newspaper.
Two months ago, the newspaper published nude photos of a streaker who was arrested after he ran across the football field during a game. The photos stirred controversy, and university officials said the paper's decision was "in very poor taste."
Isom has said that his evaluations at ECU had been positive but that his relationship with administrators rapidly deteriorated after the streaker photos appeared in the newspaper. Isom has said it was not his role, nor would it have been legal, to prevent the student editors from publishing the photos.
So far, university leaders have not disclosed the reason for the firing, prompting widespread speculation that it was related to the streaker photo brouhaha.
Hardy said the university is concerned that the decision to change leadership had been connected to a First Amendment issue "without full knowledge of the facts at hand. It is important to distinguish between any personnel matter and the First Amendment."
Letters call for reinstatement
Two national groups focused on free press and students' rights have sent stern letters to ECU, demanding that Isom be reinstated.
In a Jan. 9 letter, the Virginia-based Student Press Law Center called on ECU's board of trustees to commission an independent investigation into the circumstances of Isom's firing.
"It is neither legally supportable nor educationally sound to punish a college media adviser for the lawful editorial judgments of the students he advises," wrote Frank LoMonte, executive director of the center.
In a Jan. 6 letter to ECU Chancellor Steve Ballard, the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education details legal precedents that protect student journalists and staff media advisers, including a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case involving ECU in the 1970s.
"ECU has both a legal and a moral obligation to respect the freedom of expression rights enjoyed by its students," writes FIRE's Will Creeley, director of legal and public advocacy. "Please spare East Carolina University the embarrassment of fighting against the Bill of Rights. ... We are prepared to use the full range of our resources to secure a just result in this case."
Hardy's statement reiterated support for the student journalists.
"The First Amendment demands public universities provide student journalists the opportunity to make their own news decisions and learn from them without interference," the statement said. "ECU puts that principle first. It has upheld it, especially in this instance."