University newspaper adviser is fired over photos of streaker

Jan 6 2012 - 11:27am


The East Carolinian newspaper, where a series of photos were published Nov. 8 showing a naked man sprinting across the field and then being tackled and arrested. (WBTV)
The East Carolinian newspaper, where a series of photos were published Nov. 8 showing a naked man sprinting across the field and then being tackled and arrested. (WBTV)

GREENVILLE, N.C. -- East Carolina University fired the adviser to its student newspaper this week, two months after the paper published unedited nude photos of a streaker at a football game.

Paul Isom, the director of student media since 2008, was dismissed Wednesday. ECU officials declined to comment on the reason for the termination, describing it as a personnel matter.

In an interview Thursday, Isom said officials gave him only a vague explanation that they wanted to "go in a different direction." Isom, whose salary was $57,000, said he only had positive job evaluations during his time at ECU.

The firing prompted criticism from free-press advocates, who say the students had the First Amendment right to publish the photos and that Isom is a victim.

"They know they can't retaliate against the editor, so I guess this is their plan B -- 'Let's fire the adviser,' " said Adam Goldstein, an attorney with the Student Press Law Center, a national group that aims to protect the rights of student journalists. "But it doesn't make it any constitutionally different. It's still illegal to retaliate for speech you don't like."

Isom oversaw all student media outlets and directly advised The East Carolinian newspaper, where a series of photos was published Nov. 8 showing a naked man sprinting across the field and then being tackled and arrested. The streaker's stunt happened during a halftime military appreciation ceremony at the ECU-Southern Mississippi game on Nov. 5.

The incident, and the nude photos, kicked up a controversy and drew national attention for ECU. A Raleigh man, John Sieglinger, 21, was charged with trespassing and indecent exposure. He has a court date in Pitt County later this month.

The university previously described the newspaper's decision to publish the photo, showing full frontal nudity, as "in very poor taste."

The East Carolinian is a student-run newspaper. The paper's editor, Caitlin Hale, could not be reached for comment Thursday. But in a previous statement, she said she and other student editors decided to publish unedited photos because the paper's audience, primarily students, should have access to them.

"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," Hale's statement said.

University officials had said they would have conversations with those who made the decision "to further the students' understanding that with the freedom of the press comes a certain level of responsibility about what is appropriate and effective to get their message across," according to a Nov. 8 statement from Virginia Hardy, vice chancellor for student affairs.

Initially, Isom said, Hardy told him to take down the photographs from the newspaper's website.

"I told her as politely as I could that if we do that, this will go from a controversy that will die down in a couple of days to a slam-dunk First Amendment issue that the university will lose and will go on for years," Isom said. "Then she backed down."

Days after the incident, ECU administrators met with Isom and the student journalists. One promised there would be "consequences," Isom said.

Isom said that during production of the Nov. 8 edition, he had seen the photos on a computer screen. He and several editors had what he described as an "informal" and "broad" discussion about how to use the photos. He said he was not aware of exactly how or where the photos would appear. That judgment is left to student editors, he said.

"As the adviser I try to make sure they have the resources they need to make the best decisions they can, and then step out of the way and allow them to make those decisions," he said.

To do otherwise, Isom said, would actually put the university at risk. If he involved himself in the student journalists' day-to-day decisions, that would constitute what's called "prior restraint," impinging on the students' First Amendment rights, he said.

In the early 1970s, the ECU student newspaper's editor was suspended for obscenity when the paper published a letter to the editor that included a four-letter word directed at then-Chancellor Leo Jenkins. The editor then filed a lawsuit against the university.

For now, Isom will look for another job. He hopes to stay in North Carolina to be close to his children.

"The only thing that I could have done differently to prevent this from happening would have been to tell the students, 'Don't do anything controversial, don't run anything that's going to make an administrator mad,' " Isom said. "And then I wouldn't be doing my job to teach them to be journalists."

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